Friday, October 3, 2014

Warehouse workers tested for PCB exposure

The warehouse has been closed and
workers sent home until further notice.
A Walmart returns processing center in Indianapolis is contaminated with a toxic substance, and hundreds of workers at the evacuated facility are now undergoing medical testing to see if they were exposed.

The contamination involves a massive warehouse, where logistics company Exel processes merchandise returned from Walmart retail stores.

The warehouse now sits empty after Exel ordered nearly 600 full-time and contract workers to evacuate the processing center on August 20.

On that day, supervisors met with employees at 3:45pm to announce the facility was shutting down immediately.

During the meeting, employees were not told the reason for the shut-down, only that they would continue to receive their normal pay and benefits and would not return to work until further notice, according to a longtime worker who asked not to be identified.

Five days later, Exel managers again met with employees at a nearby hotel to explain Walmart discovered the presence of a strange substance within the facility.

Testing showed the substance to be PCBs or polychlorinated biphenyl, a synthetic organic chemical compound that is highly toxic and classified by the US Environmental Protection Agency as "probable human carcinogens." The EPA says studies in animals provide conclusive evidence that PCBs cause cancer.

Over the past two weeks, Exel employees have been reporting to an east-side medical laboratory for blood tests, which Exel hopes will shed light on which employees were exposed to the PCBs and what impact - if any - the exposure might have on their health.

"It's a situation that continues to evolve, and we're working diligently with Walmart to understand it more," said Exel Vice President of Communications Lynn Anderson.

"We took an overly cautious role and decided we wanted to get out of the building right away. We are really trying to understand the extent of the contamination and the exposure and what it means for the future and the facility."

A Walmart company spokesperson says that Walmart made a joint decision with Exel to close operations "out of an abundance of caution."

"Walmart immediately hired an environmental consulting firm after a contractor servicing a return center we lease discovered the presence of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls. Additional testing confirmed PCBs were present in the building, which is operated by a contractor, Exel Inc. We made a joint decision with Exel to close the facility out of an abundance of caution.

"Both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) have been informed and are investigating this matter. We are cooperating with the investigation, and early indications suggest that the contaminant is in the building materials.

"We have made arrangements for returned products from our stores to be sent to other return centers."

Unusual particles discovered

Anderson says the contamination was discovered by accident, while equipment was being moved inside the plant. That's when workers found an unusual residue and "particles that didn't look right."

Walmart hired a third-party company to test the residue, and according to Exel, the testing revealed the presence of PCBs.

How much PCBs and where did they come from? Exel and its employees are still looking for answers.

Exel plans to begin its own independent testing at the abandoned warehouse this week. In the meantime, it is actively looking for another facility to resume its operations. Exel has not ruled out the possibility of returning to the contaminated facility, but says that is unlikely - at least in the short-term.

Since the evacuation, Exel has hosted two face-to-face meetings with affected employees to provide them with information, and another meeting is scheduled for early October.

At the last meeting, workers were encouraged to take advantage of free blood tests.

PCBs are considered very dangerous to human health, and they are very hard to destroy. Banned in the United States for decades, they were commonly used as coolants and stabilizers in products such as fluorescent light ballasts, transformers, paints, cements, electrical components, pesticides, lubricating oils and sealants.

A known carcinogen, PCBs are linked to other serious health concerns including negative impacts on the immune, reproductive and neurological systems.

Source: 1340 AM WBIW

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