Dangerous Chemicals at Work Caused Birth Defects: Case Report
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Dangerous Chemicals at Work Caused Birth Defects: Case Report

Saturday, July 25, 2009By Richard Alexander
Jack Zhao will never graduate from school. He will never hold a job. He will never play baseball or do any of the things that the other boys in his neighborhood do. Jack will never enjoy being a boy because he was born blind and with severe, irreversible brain damage. He also entered the world with undescended testes and a small phallus, all signs of chemical exposure during pregnancy.Jack never had a chance at a normal childhood or a normal life, and because of birth defects caused by chemical exposure in the womb, he will require supervised assisted living throughout his life. He will also need a long list of services for serious injuries that includes a case manager, physical therapy, specialized transportation, continuing medication for seizure control, regular medical care, and housing modifications to meet his severe injuries. Jack’s parents will never enjoy seeing their son grow from a boy to a man, and they’ll be constantly concerned about his care.Jack’s birth defects should not have happened, and they didn’t happen by chance.

Jack is a victim of his mother’s employer, a company that formerly made semiconductor substrates for the electronics industry at a plant in California.

The firm operated with complete and illegal disregarded for the health and safety of its workers. As a result of the company’s callousness, Jack suffered permanent injuries while he was still in his mother’s womb. His birth defects occurred because his mother’s employer maintained a hazardous work environment that exposed her to strong solvents every day.

While she was carrying Jack, Fei Ying Li worked in a small, insufficiently ventilated room, and her employer failed to provide the necessary safety equipment for workers in that type of environment. Her job was to clean and inspect gallium arsenide wafers. As the name indicates, arsenide is a compound closely related to arsenic, which is a potent poison.

In her daily work, Ms. Li used large quantities of methanol to clean gallium arsenide dust off the wafers, machines, and table surfaces in the small room. For 7 months, she breathed in gallium arsenide dust and methanol fumes and passed them directly to Jack.

The state of California lists gallium arsenide as a carcinogen, so it’s not surprising that it can cause other serious health problems. Methanol, sometimes known as wood alcohol, can cause almost immediate blindness and death.

Individually, either of those toxic substances can cause severe personal injury or wrongful death. Together, they combined to ruin Jack Zhao’s life before he even left the womb. Jack’s mother inhaled the fumes from those dangerous chemicals on a daily basis even though the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) says that employers have a legal obligation to provide a safe working environment for everyone.

The conditions in which Fei Ying Li and her fellow employees worked were so bad that Cal/OSHA issued 42 citations against the company.

Those conditions and the attitudes of the owners were reminiscent of the abuses that workers faced in coal mines and textile factories a century ago. And, in its attempts to minimize the reported exposures of workers to dangerous chemicals, the company did everything possible to manipulate the tests conducted inside the plant.

Most of the workers in that factory were recent Chinese immigrants with limited English skills. They said that they received little or no safety training.

Eventually, the company’s owners, instead of doing the right thing and cleaning up their plant in the United States, they dismantled it and moved it to China to take advantage of that country’s minimal environmental and worker protection laws. Even at the end in the United States, the company’s owners received another citation because workers were once again expose to arsenide dust during the dismantling.

Because of Jack Zhao’s irreversible personal injuries, my partner Amanda Hawes and I brought suit against the manufacturing company and against the supplier of the methanol used in the cleaning operations because that company did not provide adequate safety instructions for workers using its products.

After fighting off and almost losing the manufacturer’s motion for judgment in its favor and working with skimpy evidence on the actual quantities of toxins that polluted the workplace, days before trial we reached a settlement totaling $4.25 million, with $3.75 million coming from the manufacturer and $500,000 from the supplier of the methanol.

Under the tertms of the settlement we agreed not to mention the company’s name, as if that was some big deal since it since it has been shipped to China and rebuilt there.

Jack’s money was placed in a Special Needs Trust, which allows his parents to purchase extra services not provided by Medi-Cal under a program in which the State of California can make a claim for repayment of benefits provided to Jack from the Trust after the child’s death.

This recovery doesn’t come close to justice, but it was the best that could be done with the evidence we had.  No amount of money can ever be adequate compensation for the personal injuries that Jack Zhao must endure for his entire life.

Every employer has a legal obligation to provide a safe workplace not only for workers, but for children during pregnancy.

Jack’s Zhao’s case is one of many similar cases we have prosecuted for children injured in utero,  See the reports that can be found on www.alexanderinjury.com.

The law favors children in cases of injuries caused by exposures during pregnanc by allowing the child to bring an action after they reach age 18, and in cases of those who are incompetent, there is no time limit for bringing suit.  Waiting that long to take action is a mistake because  important witnesses cannot be found and necessary records of chemical purchases and applications are often unavailable.

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Richard Alexander

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