Alt/Buffalo Alternative Press

January 25 - February 7, 2002

LINDE AIR/PRAXAIR; SOPHISTRY INCARNATE

By Mack Mahoney

In the recent past Alt/Buffalo Alternative Press has published several articles on FACTS, an acronym representing "For A Clean Tonawanda Site." This organization was created to disseminate information on the careless dumping of radioactive waste from the 1940s to the '70s by the Linde Air Products Company at the Linde Air site and at various other sites in the Buffalo and Niagara Falls area, which exposed nearby residents to cancer and other life-threatening disorders. Linde also let unsuspecting employees work with radioactive materials in the plant at 175 East Park Drive. The organizers of FACTS, Don Finch, Ralph Krieger, and Jim Rauch, have dedicated themselves to publicly establishing the culpability of Linde Air (now Praxair) and to forcing the company to accept responsibility for criminally irresponsible practices. They are unquestionably culpable.

Recently, The Buffalo News has rather belatedly given some publicity to the FACTS organization and its claims that Linde's victims are far more numerous than the state's report would indicate. That report focused on the high incidence of cancer among Linde's former employees and among area residents.

In 1943, when I was a 16-year-old high school student, I held an after-school job at Linde, a four to eight p.m. shift. During the war, 16 year olds were allowed to work in defense factories four hours a day. I have long suspected that my peripheral neuropathy, a progressive and irreversible disorder that destroys nerves in the extremities, was caused by working with radioactive materials at Linde Air. My neuropathy has been diagnosed as "idiopathic," meaning that the cause is unknown, unlike diabetic neuropathy, for instance.

A description of my work at Linde Air serves not only as an example of a task eminently qualified for lethal possibilities but also as an example of the company's insensitivity toward employees, in my case, a sixteen-year-old kid. But first, I must explain where in the plant I worked and what was made there.

I worked in what was called the welding shop, where inner tanks were made to fit inside steel railroad tank cars. The tanks were made of a copper colored metal called "everdur," I guess to suggest always durable. They were made of three sections. My job was to place each section on planks supported by two sawhorses to clean the long edges of each section for welding. A fifty pound handheld grinder was used for this purpose. The top edge was easy. I just rested the grinding wheel on the edge of the tank and moved easily down the length of each section. The underside was not easy. I had to crouch under the tank and hold the grinding wheel up against the tank. I was five feet six inches tall at that time and weighed one hundred and twelve pounds. My skinny arms shook with the effort.

After the long seams of the sections were welded together and the tank fully completed, I prepared to clean the inside by lowering a bucket of water and cyanide eggs into the tank from the manhole at the top. I then lowered myself into the tank by holding on to the metal collar around the manhole. Rubber calf length boots, rubber gloves, and a plastic face mask gave some protection from the cyanide mixture and fumes as I cleaned the entire inside of the tank with rags dipped in the bucket. Crouching, standing, crawling through the baffle openings from one compartment to another exposed my lower legs and arms to the irritant fluid, leaving scars that lasted into my thirties. The fumes in such a confined space were strong and, I assume, could severely damage the lungs over a period of years. It was a job that induced shallow breathing, a rather frightening experience, exacerbated by the fear of having to light my way with a lamp at the end of a long extension cord, which, I had to lay on the wet bottom of t

I also worked as a welder's helper, breathing in both arc and acetylene fumes. At night, I couldn't sleep because my eyes burnt so from the blinding white light of arc welding. And there were worse hazards related to being a welder's helper, such as the one that ended for a while my employment at Linde. While I was guiding a twelve hundred pound I beam out of a recently welded tank, the chain that I held in my right hand, linking the beam to a crane, came loose, ripping off the first joint of my right ring finger. The crane had been improperly rigged. The beam fell, crushing the heel of my right foot and cutting to the bone the muscle above my knee, as it crashed to the cement floor of the factory. I spent a month in a hospital, sedated by morphine. I wasn't concerned on the day when the nurse told me that the morphine was being stopped, but, that night, when I called the nurse and told her that I was in pain, she asked where the pain was. The question confused me, and I had to tell her that I didn't know

A Workers Compensation doctor determined that I had 40 percent disability in my right leg, for which a surrogate court judge awarded me $2,400. My father, a bus driver, did not protest the award. Twenty-four hundred dollars seemed to him a handsome sum; to me, it was a staggering amount of money, that, unfortunately, I had to wait until I was 21 to collect. It was, of course, a ridiculously paltry award, given to a boy who would most likely spend the rest of his life working in a factory, limited by his injuries.

What seemed most likely did not happen. Instead, I went to university, and then worked in industry as head of an inside sales department until I grew weary of having lunch with the president and other uninspiring officers of the company. I then returned to UB after marriage and two children, earned a lean living while in school by folk singing in coffee houses, bars, colleges, and universities in New York, Pennsylvania, Toronto, Cleveland and Boston. There were occasional radio and television appearances, mostly public broadcasting.

Folk singing led to my being offered a job as English teacher at the Buffalo Seminary, where, through a series of weird circumstances, I became chairperson of the department. I left the Seminary after eighteen years, following my first heart surgery, and worked as program director of Just Buffalo. From there, I went to Friendship House, originally one of the old settlement houses, to establish a school for the performing arts. During this time, I continued folk singing - mostly labor and protest songs, less frequently, medieval, renaissance, and 17th century lute songs. My final performance was in 1991, as a member of a trio with Connie Chamberlain and Don Metz at Peopleart. Shortly after my third heart surgery, I was diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy to add to my other maladies: heart attacks, pneumonia, congestive heart failure. I suspect they all are the result of radiation from Linde Air.

My suspicions stem from the following facts: Between the ages of 12 and 17, 1 lived on Dunlop Avenue with my family, a short distance from Linde Air. After returning from the war, I lived on Dunlop for at least a year before attending Louisiana State University. Returning from LSU in 1950, I lived on Dunlop for about two more years. That's a total of roughly eight years, living in the neighborhood of Linde Air.

Over the years, there have been occurrences of similar ailments among my brothers and sisters. Both of my brothers, my sister Diana, and I all had open heart surgeries. One of my brothers, Rodney, ultimately died of heart disease. My other younger brother, Joseph, as a teenager, almost died of acute nephritis, a kidney disease, and my second oldest sister, Barbara, died eight years ago of a rare kidney disease. My youngest sister, Nancy, has had colon cancer. As a child in the 1950s, my sister Diana was hospitalized and then was abed at home for one full year with an undiagnosed disease. Environment, not coincidence, was the cause of my siblings' and my illnesses.

I have learned to live a quite contented life, despite my damaged heart and neuropathy. There is, however, one Linde legacy that bothers me to some degree. Because of my instability, I can no longer perform with my guitar. I loved having the songs I cared a great deal for come through me to my audiences.

There were many other residents of Dunlop Avenue and other streets in the Linde neighborhood who died or were seriously ill.

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