Dozens of former workers at the Lycra factory in the Netherlands have, with the support of their unions, engaged in a battle with the chemicals industry giant, DuPont. They hold the company responsible for numerous miscarriages, hysterectomies, stillbirths and cancers, all caused by their exposure to a solvent.
DuPont’s Lycra factory in Dordrecht (20 kilometres south of Rotterdam) has long gone. It began producing Lycra fibre in 1964 but was sold in 2004 and closed its doors in 2006, leaving behind it a litany of problems suffered by women workers who had for decades been exposed to Dimethylacetamide (DMA), a dangerous reprotoxic solvent. This liquid solvent was used in the manufacture of synthetic fibres such as the elastic yarn, Lycra, which is particularly used in sports and swimwear but also in underwear.
This volatile solvent is easily absorbed through contact or via respiration. The harmful effects it has on both men and women of reproductive age were already known in the 1970s. They were also described in a DuPont manual dating from the 1980s which, moreover, indicated the need for certain protective equipment. Women who worked in the Lycra factory, generally without such protection, suffered miscarriages and stillbirths, not to mention fertility problems and cervical cancer. No link was established at the time. "How were we to know?" these women say today (see boxes). "DuPont seemed like a good company, they apparently took safety seriously, the salaries were high, and Dordrecht was happy to have a US employer of this size in the region."
It can’t be down to chance alone
Jacob De Boer, a lecturer in environmental chemistry and toxicology at the Free University of Amsterdam, considers it unthinkable that no-one established this link. Working with the epidemiologist, Marijke de Cock, he intends to study the link between DMA exposure and the fertility and pregnancy problems suffered by these former workers and their children. This study could take two years but, according to Jacob De Boer, the link itself is not in doubt. "The fact that so many women complained of similar symptoms while working with DMA in an unprotected environment cannot be down to chance alone," he states.
In the 1970s, animal testing had already found that this solvent was harmful to the fœtus and to the reproductive organs (embryotoxic and teratogenic), and therefore a substance to which people of reproductive age should not be exposed. However, the European Chemicals Agency did not officially classify DMA as being of serious concern until 2014.
Jacob De Boer is horrified: as a company video from 1986 shows, staff generally worked in the Lycra factory without any protective equipment. "It was known that DMA was absorbed 40% through skin contact and 60% through inhalation. These people were wearing no suits or face protection. They were directly exposed to the fumes being emitted by the reels of Lycra yarn. Regular medical examinations were no more than a facade. And there was a notorious absence of any monitoring on the part of the authorities."
The Dutch toxicologist gives the example of the carcinogen C8 (perfluorooctanoic acid) used in DuPont’s Teflon factory and to which workers and local residents were exposed. The link between this and the high percentage of cancers in the region has only recently been established. "The authorities should monitor the chemicals industry more rigorously, and better identify all hazardous substances. The chemicals sector is creative: once a substance becomes regarded as a cause for concern, they modify its structure slightly in order to place an alternative on the market, and yet this presents the same dangers to health. It’s a profitable business. I can’t imagine what lies ahead of us."
The Dutch Minister for Social Affairs has called for an "in-depth investigation" into DuPont’s actions regarding exposure to toxic substances. The role of the surveillance and monitoring bodies, such as the Social Affairs and Works Inspectorate (Inspectie Sociale Zaken en Werkgelegenheid, SZW), which reports to the minister, will also be examined. The Inspectorate is therefore going to investigate itself. When questioned about this, it stated that it was not interested in the historical aspect but rather in ensuring control of the chemicals industry in accordance with current regulations. "With the knowledge we have today, we can explain things that were perhaps not banned at the time. But this is not our role. Until the results of the investigation are available, we do not wish comment on DuPont," they merely say. As for DuPont, they are sticking to a written statement in which they state that the DMA levels recorded in the Lycra factory were not considered dangerous and that they acted responsibly and in line with available information.
Dozens of former workers from DuPont’s Lycra factory have come forward and made themselves known to the FNV’s Office of Occupational Diseases (Bureau Beroepsziekten, BBZ). Marian Schaapman runs this office, the aim of which is to support union members suffering from an occupational disease or having been the victim of an accident at work to hold the company responsible and obtain compensation. In the summer, the BBZ collectively invoked DuPont’s liability with regard to the former factory workers, and this has had the effect of suspending the time limitation for legal action. Mrs Schaapman is also shocked by the scale of the affair. "Generally, speaking, when hazardous substances are not identified as problematic it is an issue of grave negligence. Although companies are required to register carcinogenic, mutagenic and reprotoxic substances (CMR), only 13% of them actually do so in the Netherlands."
Based on interviews and other sources, the BBZ will retroactively determine the working conditions that were current in the Lycra factory. With the help of Jacob De Boer, the causal link between DMA exposure and the health problems suffered will be demonstrated on the basis of the former workers’ medical records. "We have a solid case but we still need to complete it with further evidence," states Marian Schaapman. "The consequences of DMA exposure are clearly described in the literature: miscarriages, stillbirths, bleeding and ovarian function disorders. The testimonies we have gathered from these women bear witness to a litany of suffering. They could not talk about it at the time. DuPont was a world dominated by men. On top of which, they had no idea of the risks to which they were being exposed."
According to Marian Schaapman, the overriding objective of her clients is not to obtain compensation for damages suffered but rather recognition of the fact. And to contribute to further prevention. "It would be to DuPont’s credit if it were to admit its liability. I don’t rule out the fact that they may have underestimated the risks. We are not seeking to prolong proceedings. A fund could be created, as was the case for ‘the DES children’ (offspring of mothers who took Diethylstilbestrol to prevent miscarriage and who were born with health problems, ed. note) and the victims of asbestos. These women and their children have a right to know exactly what happened."
Her 15 years of experience with BBZ have taught her that companies often have a blind spot when it comes to their workers’ occupational health. "It’s an aspect that is often overlooked; the workers come last. Their illnesses are considered collateral damage."•