Jim Morris on the Niagara Falls Cancer Factory

In the 1960s, Niagara Falls, New York was an industrial powerhouse, dominated by giants like Union Carbide, DuPont and Goodyear Tire and Rubber.

Working at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company chemical plant in Niagara Falls, New York, was considered a good job – the kind of industrial manufacturing job that allowed blue-collar workers to thrive in the latter half of the 20th century – that allowed them to buy their own home, have a couple weeks off for vacation and live a decent middle class existence.

But it was also the kind of job that exposed you to toxic chemicals and offered little to no protection from them, either in the way of protective gear or adequate ventilation. 

Eventually, it was a job that gave you bladder cancer.

In his soon to be published book The Cancer Factory (Beacon Press, January 2024), Jim Morris tells the story of the workers who experienced one of the nation’s worst, and best-documented, outbreak of work-related cancer, and the lawyer who has represented the bladder-cancer victims at the plant for more than thirty years. 

Goodyear, and its chemical supplier, DuPont, knew that two of the chemicals used in the plant had been shown to cause cancer, but made little effort to protect the plant’s workers until the cluster of cancer cases – and deaths – was undeniable.

In doing so it tells a broader story of corporate malfeasance and governmental neglect.

Workers have only weak protections from exposure to toxic substances in America, and regulatory breaches contribute to an estimated 95,000 deaths from occupational illness each year.

Based on four decades of reporting and delving deeply into the scientific literature about toxic substances and health risks, the arcana of worker regulations, and reality of loose enforcement, The Cancer Factory exposes the terrible health risks too many workers face.

Morris is the executive director of Public Health Watch based in Austin, Texas

“The book is about a small chemical plant in Niagara Falls, New York owned by Goodyear Tire and Rubber,” Morris told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last month. “It still operates. It’s a pretty bare bones staff now. It opened in 1946 as a PVC plant. It then moved into what’s called rubber chemicals in 1957.” 

“It was a small plant overshadowed by a lot of the big guys in Niagara Falls like DuPont and Union Carbide. The book is about what I believe to be the best documented and biggest workplace outbreak of bladder cancer in this country’s post-war history. It’s incredibly well documented by Steve Wodka, the lawyer who has represented several dozen of the sick workers. But also the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) went in there in the beginning of the late 1980s and did exhaustive work showing huge excesses of bladder cancer among the workers there.”

“I got onto this story in 1998 when I was working on a series about the chemical industry for the Houston Chronicle. The series was mostly about the vinyl industry. But I heard about this and did a quick interview with Steve Wodka, who I did not know at the time. I did a longer story about this bladder cancer outbreak and then just set it aside.”

“In 2013, fifteen years later, it got back on my radar. I was with the Center for Public Integrity. And we started another investigation of the chemical industry. And I wound up going to Niagara Falls for the first time in 2013, meeting some of the workers and retirees. I did a story in the fall of 2013. And I came away thinking – there is a book here. There is a lot more here than a single story.”

How many workers came down with bladder cancer?

“It’s now up to 78 as of a couple of months ago. That’s probably an undercount.”

What was causing these cancers?

“In 1957, this Niagara Falls plant started making a product called Nailax. It is an antioxidant that Goodyear uses for its tires. Nailax in its finished product looks kind of like chocolate chips.”

“They are like little pellets that are shipped to the Goodyear Tire plants and added to the mixture to keep tires from cracking.”

“Nailax contains a number of chemicals, but the notable one is ortho-toluidine. It is an aromatic amine. It’s from a class of chemicals that was linked to bladder cancer in the late 19th century from dye factories in Europe. There is a history of this chemical and bladder cancer in workers.”

“They started using this chemical in 1957. The first cases of bladder cancer from its exposure started showing up in the early to late 1970s among the workers. It mushroomed from there and took off. The number of cases from that one plant is at least 78 as of today.”

They were all from that factory in Niagara Falls?

“Yes. The factory had two sides – vinyl, which closed in 1996, and rubber chemicals, where the ortho-toluidine was being used. Most of the exposures were there. But it wasn’t just workers who were involved in production of rubber chemicals. There were maintenance workers who worked throughout the plant. They were constantly moving around. A number of those guys got bladder cancer. But yes, the real damage was in the rubber chemicals side of the plant.”

Did the workers who came down with bladder cancer get justice?

“That depends on how you define justice. The lawyer who represented most of these guys, Steve Wodka, settled all of his thirty some cases. He sued DuPont and other chemical suppliers. He couldn’t sue Goodyear because of worker’s compensation laws. So on behalf of these workers he sued DuPont and other suppliers of this chemical. There was never a trial, there was never a public airing of the allegations.”

Do we know how much the settlements were for?


“There were two heroes in this story. One was Steve Wodka and the other is NIOSH.  They went in the late 1980s and did an amazing job in studying this plant and producing reports, some as recently as just a couple of years ago showing that bladder cancer rates were still elevated at this plant.”

Are workers still being exposed today?

“Exposures are way down from where they were thirty or forty years ago. The most recent NIOSH report came out in 2021. And it concluded that even at these very, very low levels of exposure, there is still an elevated risk of bladder cancer to the workers. Is the risk as high as it was thirty to forty years ago? Probably not. You have closed processes now and have workers wear protective gear – taking steps they didn’t take years ago.” 

“But according to the federal government, there is still an elevated risk of bladder cancer in that plant.”

Was the bladder cancer problem isolated to this one factory?

“The bladder cancers from that factory were so well documented. I never intended to look at the problem of environmental cancer in the Niagara Falls area. I am certainly aware of it. There was plenty to write about just about this one factory.”

Could Goodyear have produced this product at this factory without exposing its workers?

“Yes, it could have. It could have had closed systems. It could have made the workers wear protective gear much earlier than it did. And they have since done that. That’s not to say that there are no more exposures. The exposures are lower than they were many years ago.”

Were you able to communicate with Goodyear and DuPont?

“I sought comment from both Goodyear and DuPont and got prepared statements. They were pretty much standard statements saying – we do everything we can to protect our workers’ health and safety. Not much beyond that.” 

“Of course, many of the key players for both Goodyear and DuPont are long deceased. These are guys who worked there many years ago. Steve Wodka has a trove of depositions from these cases dating back to the 1980s. He opened his files to me. So I was able to quote from both DuPont and Goodyear depositions to let them have their say.”

Where was the federal government in terms of protecting the workers here?

“The problem is that the OSHA standard, the OSHA limit for ortho-toluidine is five parts per million in the air. It’s been that way since OSHA was created more than 50 years ago.” 

“I don’t know that Goodyear ever violated that standard. They would take their measurements and the levels would be well below the limit. And they’d say – there is nothing there for OSHA to give a citation. The problem was that the limit was way way too high. And NIOSH confirmed that.”

“I’m not saying that there wasn’t more that OSHA could have done in this plant. But I don’t believe Goodyear ever violated the OSHA limit for this chemical.”

Was there any labor pressure on OSHA to strengthen the standard?

“There has been pressure on OSHA almost from the start to tighten up some of these very unprotected limits. Ortho-toluidine is just one example. The book gets into that. OSHA has done a terrible job protecting workers against toxic chemicals. It has tightened just a few dozen standards in its 50 plus year history. It’s a much deeper problem than just ortho-toluidine.”

You say in the introduction – the book examines weak protections afforded workers exposed to toxic substances – a regulatory breach that contributes to an estimated 95,000 deaths from occupational illnesses each year.

“The estimates that I’ve seen for occupational disease deaths range from 50,000 to 120,000.”

Did you get a chance to speak with the workers?

“I spoke with a number of Goodyear workers. Two of them are retired now, they both have bladder cancer. It’s come back a couple of times for each of them. One is Harry Weist who is 67. He retired a few years ago. And his father-in-law, Ray Kline. He is in his mid-80s. Both worked at the plant. Both have bladder cancer. I did talk to other workers as well. But Harry and Ray are the main characters. Ray was one of the earlier bladder cancer cases from that plant. And his son-in-law Harry followed him. They were incredibly open with me.

What is your sense of the current state of worker protection in the United States?

“It’s not good. There are 80,000 plus chemicals on the market. Half of them are considered by the EPA to be actively used. The standards for chemicals in the workplace are absurdly outdated, if they exist at all. And in many cases, they don’t exist.”

“Union membership has plummeted. You don’t have aggressive unions like the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) rattling company cages demanding safe conditions on the job. Is it as bad as it was 50 years ago? Probably not across the board. But there are certainly places in this country that are having cancer outbreaks right now that we don’t know about. It took an extraordinary confluence of circumstances to get this one out in the open. It was a very aggressive OCAW union. NIOSH did very good work. Otherwise this cancer cluster at Goodyear might never have come to light.”

And as you point out, this was a lawful use of this chemical in the workplace. I guess that means we are looking at government neglect.

“It was both government and corporate neglect. I show that by the mid-1950s, DuPont, the main manufacturer of this chemical and supplier to Goodyear, was protecting its own workers in moon suits at the production plant in New Jersey – the place where they made this chemical.” 

“There are pictures from the mid-1950s of workers from DuPont in these moon suits. And yet, they were in no hurry to tell their customers – this stuff is pretty bad, you need to have a zero exposure policy for your workers.”

“So yes, the OSHA standard is inexcusably lenient. But both Goodyear and DuPont have a lot to do with this as well.”

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Jim Morris, see 37 Corporate Crime Reporter 25(13). June 19, 2023, print edition only.]

Copyright © Corporate Crime Reporter
In Print 48 Weeks A Year

Built on Notes Blog Core
Powered by WordPress