Phosgene, a widely used chemical that can be lethal at concentrations of less than 2 parts per million, killed a DuPont employee who died Sunday (Jan. 24) after inhaling the gas one day earlier in an accident at a West Virginia plant. The chemical is used in the production of various pesticides and herbicides as well as plastic water bottles made with bisphenol A (BPA).
Highly toxic phosgene first gained infamy in World War I when it was part of the chemical warfare arsenals used by both Germany and the Allies. It is produced by the ton in the U.S. today and is used in manufacturing a wide variety of goods, including food, that millions of Americans encounter every day.
Mr. Carl “Danny” Fish died a day after inhaling less than a pound of the chemical that was accidently released from a hose at the Belle, W.V., plant where he had worked for 32 years. It was the third of four accidents the DuPont facility experienced in just two days. The plant is currently shut down and under investigation by federal authorities.
Read a thorough account of the events that unfolded as a result of the accident in Ken Ward’s piece in The Charleston Gazette on Jan. 26, 2010.
At first, DuPont officials downplayed the seriousness of the situation, issuing a statement that Mr. Fish was sent to the hospital “for treatment and observation as part of the standard protocol for exposure to this material.” And during the initial 911 call the DuPont security guard said only that an ambulance was needed for a “medical emergency” at the plant but “nothing’s leaking.” You can listen to the entire call here.
In Ward’s blog, Sustained Outrage, he reports that the 911 operator called back to try to gather a little more information in the hope of giving the first responders a better idea of what they were about to face. You can read all about it here.
This tragedy is the latest example of the threats that chemical plant workers face and the responsibility that companies like DuPont bear to ensure their employees’ safety.
Two days after the accident, DuPont issued two news releases. The first boasted that its fourth quarter “sales of $6.4 billion were up 10 percent versus prior year, led by sales growth greater than 20 percent for titanium dioxide, electronic materials, performance polymers and seed products.”
The second release began this way: “Today’s DuPont fourth quarter 2009 earnings news release contained an extra comma which could lead to misinterpretation.”
There isn’t a single mention on the company’s website of the employee, husband and father who gave more than 30 years of service — and ultimately his life — working for DuPont.
Sadly, profits don’t always translate into safer workplaces, updated equipment and more inspections. When a company as huge as DuPont allows four significant accidents to occur in just two days, including one mishap that released 1,900 pounds of methyl chloride and another that left a man dead, something is seriously wrong.