Secret Files Reveal Boeing Doctor Warned of Toxic Risks, Birth Defects

Workplace exposure to hazardous chemicals can cause severe health problems for employees and their families. And some workers at Boeing factories in the Seattle area have learned this in a very hard way. They are suing because not only did they bear children who suffer from birth defects, but they also have proof that Boeing knew about the risks employees faced because of the hazardous chemicals but did little to inform or protect them.

Chemicals Used in Boeing Aircraft Manufacturing

Boeing factories used many chemicals in the manufacture of their airplanes. These included heavy metals, such as cadmium, hexavalent chromium, and lead, and solvents, such as methyl ethyl ketone, toluene, and xylene. In addition to the chemicals used every day in the manufacturing process, contamination was also found in the groundwater surrounding one of the manufacturing plants.

These chemicals have been linked to cancers and birth defects. Looking just at chromium, research studies have linked it to neurological and musculoskeletal birth defects, low birth weight, DNA damage, and premature birth. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration points to the risk of workers developing cancers of the lungs and sinus when exposed to hexavalent chromium in the workplace. (Hexavalent chromium is the carcinogen that contaminated the water in the film Erin Brockovich).

Company Documents Show Little Concern for Worker Safety

As far back as 1980, Boeing officials were alerted to the dangers of worker exposure to the hazardous chemicals used in the manufacturing plants. Company doctor Barry Dunphy presented his findings that chemicals could cause “sterility, fetal abnormalities, stillbirth, life-long chronic illness, cancer and death.” He then proposed a series of worker protection procedures. Dunphy reported that the then-president of the company, Malcolm Stamper, was not pleased to be informed of the potential issues and did not enact Dunphy’s suggestions.

Over the years, fine print notifications of potential dangers and infrequent training sessions were offered to help workers better understand the risks posed by the chemicals they used every day in their jobs. Certain chemicals have been labeled with symbols to reflect their potential reproductive dangers.

However, workers say these symbols weren’t explained to them and the notifications weren’t always clear. For example, one fine-print notification read, “Scientists generally believe that reproductive cells and the developing embryo and fetus are more sensitive than most normal adults to certain workplace chemicals and several forms of radiation.” This notification doesn’t specifically let employees know they are being exposed to chemicals that are linked to birth defects.

Workers also say management did little to enforce the safety regulations that were written, exposing workers to chemicals, and letting them perform actions that were dangerous to their health. Boeing was fined by state and federal regulators for improper documentation, safety procedures, and safety equipment. More recently, certain chemicals have been phased out and levels have been monitored, but the lawsuits filed by current and former employee families show that even these newer safety protocols haven’t been enough to prevent health impacts of chemical exposure.

Health Concerns Lead to Lawsuits

Over the years, workers watched their children born with life-altering birth defects. Some of these workers and their children have sued Boeing.

Eight-year-old Natalie Ford was born with a genetic mutation that causes her to have the physical and mental capacity of an infant. She will require lifelong, round-the-clock care. Her father, Dana Ford, is a current employee of Boeing, working there as a mechanic since 2012.

Twenty-eight-year-old Tianna Hatleberg is also the daughter of a current employee, mechanic Shawn Hatleberg. Tianna was born missing part of her brain, causing physical and intellectual disabilities. Shawn was working at Boeing when Tianna was conceived in 1993.

Forty-two-year-old Marie Riley was born with a set of four heart defects that have caused lifelong cardiac issues. Her mother, Deborah Ulrich, worked at Boeing in the 1970s and 1980s.

All three lawsuits were filed in 2020. Ford’s and Hatleberg’s lawsuits are still active, although they are discussing potential settlements. Riley has recently reached a confidential settlement agreement with Boeing.

How We Help Birth Defects Victims

Seek justice with the help of our experienced birth defects attorneys. Our alliance of birth defects victims’ attorneys has represented people like you affected by birth defects caused by toxic exposure, aggressively fighting the corporate giants who failed to protect vulnerable workers. If you or a loved one was exposed to chemicals while pregnant and now have a child who suffers from a life-altering birth defect like spina bifida, muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy, we can help.