By Susan Chandler
Chicago Tribune Staff Writer
The commercials were long a staple of late-night Chicago TV.
A woman easily removing heavy tarnish from a silver tray with a swipe of Tarn-X or clearing calcium deposits from her cloudy coffee pot with a swirl of liquid CLR.
Such miracle cleaning came with warnings, however. Bottles of Tarn-X clearly told consumers that they contained a chemical suspected of causing cancer. And CLR recommended it be used only by people wearing rubber gloves.
But those same warnings were never given to the largely Hispanic workforce that manufactured those products in far north suburban Grayslake, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday.
The civil lawsuit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, alleges Hexagon Packaging Corp., the maker of Tarn-X and CLR, routinely exposed its workers to dangerous chemicals, causing at least four of them to develop cancer.
Those claims of failing to shield workers are buttressed by the findings of an Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation at Hexagon last year.
OSHA, the government agency charged with enforcing workplace safety, found 10 “serious” violations at Hexagon during inspections from July through November 1998. Those infractions included failing to perform a hazard assessment to determine whether workers should be using protective equipment while they were blending chemicals. Hexagon also failed to train employees about working with hazardous chemicals, OSHA found.
Those oversights were deadly, according to the suit, which alleges Hexagon worker Alejandro Aguilar died of stomach cancer as a result of mixing cancer-causing chemicals by hand at Hexagon.
Aguilar was given no protective clothing nor was he warned about the chemicals he was coming in contact with, the suit alleges. There was little or no ventilation in the room where the chemicals were mixed. And when workers complained that their skin was being irritated by the chemicals and asked for gloves, they were told to get back to work, the suit says.
Hexagon executives were not available for comment Wednesday.
Aguilar also would return home in contaminated clothing because Hexagon did not provide uniforms or shower facilities, said Chicago personal injury attorney David Kupets, of Kupets & DeCaro, P.C., who filed the suit. Aguilar’s two oldest children often greeted him with hugs before he could get out of his dirty clothes, which allegedly exposed them to hazardous chemicals as well.
Kupets is representing Aguilar’s widow, Josefina Aguilar, and her 3-year-old son, Emmanuel Aguilar, who has been diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia. Other plaintiffs include Mario Ramierz, a former Hexagon employee who has cancer, and his wife, Elvia Ramierz.
At a news conference Wednesday, Kupets said there may be many other Hexagon workers who have developed cancer as a result of their jobs at the plant, and he hopes they will come forward after hearing about the suit.
Sonia Silva, a state representative for Chicago’s Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods who attended the Loop news conference, said Hexagon’s alleged conduct was “downright criminal” because the company knew about the dangers workers were being exposed to and chose to ignore them.
At Hexagon, workers regularly came into contact with thiourea, a chemical in Tarn-X that the State of California has determined to be cancer causing. They also handled morpholine, which Kupets said is a recognized carcinogen.
But while the lawsuit describes both chemicals as “known carcinogens,” the strong scientific consensus to support that assertion is lacking.
A 1996 report from the World Health Organization said that morpholine, a chemical that is widely used in the rubber industry, “is not highly toxic under conditions of acute exposure” and that a review of research found no evidence that it caused either cancer or birth defects.
Thiourea, a chemical that removes silver tarnish, has been shown to cause cancer in rats and fish when ingested, according to a report on carcinogens issued by the National Institutes of Health. But the report said there is inadequate information available to evaluate thiourea’s cancer threat to humans.
The wrongful death allegations against Hexagon are eerily similar to those made against BP Amoco PLC, where six workers developed brain cancer after working in the company’s Naperville research facility. The company is now facing at least 15 lawsuits.
But in the BP Amoco case, the company brought in university medical experts who conducted a lengthy investigation to pinpoint a cause; they were unable to isolate chemicals that could have caused the rare brain tumors, however.
The Hexagon suit also is reminiscent of Film Recovery Systems Inc., an Elk Grove Village-based company where a worker died in 1983 after being exposed to cyanide.
That case resulted in unprecedented prosecutions of corporate executives for knowingly exposing workers to hazardous chemicals. Two Film Recovery Systems executives went to prison after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter.
What makes Hexagon’s conduct particularly egregious, Kupets said, is that the chemical company targeted recent Hispanic immigrants for its workforce.
“This is a community that doesn’t assert their rights for fear of retribution or retaliation,” he said. “They targeted the Latino immigrant community because they could use these workers in ways they couldn’t use others.”
Josefina Aguilar said she first became worried about her husband in spring 1998 when she noticed his eyes had a yellowish tinge. Within weeks, he was unable to get off the sofa and had to go to the hospital, where his cancer was diagnosed.
He died five months later on Oct. 30 at age 30. The next month her son was diagnosed with leukemia.
The thing she regrets the most is chastising Alejandro for pushing the boys away when they wanted to hug him.
“This bothered me, and I’d say to him, `The kids don’t know if you’re dirty. What they need to know is that you’re their father.’ So he would hug them when he got home, even though he hated to do it and he always worried about it.”
Tarn-X is no longer made at Hexagon’s plant in Grayslake, Kupets said.
Little is known about Hexagon, which is privately held. The company is owned by Robert Edison, who also holds the post of chief executive, Kupets said.