Managers at the East Fish-kill Phillips Semiconductors plant did not have to report the release of a fluoride chemical last month, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation.
That’s because the company said only a “baseball-size clump” of the chemical ammonium fluorosilicate had been released into the air. The DEC does not require companies to report incidents involving that chemical unless 1,000 pounds or more are released, DEC spokeswoman Wendy Rosenbach said.
The chemical was re-leased July 7, when employees of the Phillips plant were doing maintenance on an air exhaust duct, a Phillips spokesman said.
“They gave us an estimate that it was about a cup of material,” Rosenbach said. “We don’t expect it to ever happen again. It didn’t trigger any kind of further action by us.”
Chemical lands on cars
The airborne chemical was released onto a parking lot, where it fell onto about 80 cars belonging to employees of IBM and Phillips.
Phillips was also not re-quired to report to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has jurisdiction over workplace-related health hazards. The company would not be re-quired to report such a chemical release unless there were three or more workers sent to the hospital or an employee died as a result, OSHA spokesman John Chavez said.
OSHA “has no specific standard regulating exposure to that chemical,” so there is no specific permissible exposure level, Chavez said.
But he noted “any worker who is working with this substance does need to wear personal protective equipment, including respiratory protection, eye and hand, arm and body protection. So it certainly is not good stuff to be exposed to.”
An employee whose car was damaged first reported the chemical release to company officials, according to internal IBM and Phillips documents. Several em-ployees, who declined to give their names, said the ammonium fluorosilicate created pitting on the windows of their cars.
A memo to employees instructed them to notify Phillips if their cars had been damaged. Phillips said it would replace damaged parts.
A worker from the East Fishkill site reported the accident to the DEC some two weeks later, complaining the company had not provided enough information on the spill to employees who were there that day, according to the DEC.
Health effects uncertain
Ammonium fluorosilicate damage to vehicle surfaces “would be immediately noticeable,” said Paul Connett, a professor of chemistry at St. Lawrence University in Canton, St. Lawrence County, and executive director of the Fluoride Action Network.
Health effects would be harder to gauge, Connett said.
“The issue is, how much did people breath into their lungs?” he said. “How much hand-to-mouth activity would they have had?”
If any of the employees had a serious exposure, “they would have known about it,” Connett said. He said symptoms can include nausea and skin burning.
Connett criticized government environmental and health agencies, saying they do not take seriously the potential side effects of exposure to chemicals such as ammonium fluorosilicate.
A “short pulse of exposure” is unlikely to cause long-term health effects, but he said workers at Phillips and IBM should be concerned.
“Unless people have experienced serious health problems, it’s probably OK now,” he said, “but it’s not something to be taken likely (sic) and it should have been reported.”
Gerald Sliss is a former IBM senior engineering specialist at the East Fishkill site. The plant has had similar problems with releases of chemicals and with maintenance of the exhaust systems dating back to when it was owned by IBM. The exhaust systems, he said, did not have “scrubbers” to clean air ducts until employees began filing complaints with OSHA.
“The exhaust systems were corroding and guys were getting stuff literally dripping down on them,” said Sliss, who was laid off by IBM in 1993 after 24 years. Sliss has done some work at the site after 1993 while working for third-party vendors who supplied materials for the manufacturing process.
Sliss said despite advances in technology, manufacturing companies haven’t found efficient and safe ways to handle and remove chemical byproducts.
“This is an industry-wide problem,” he said. “The problem is the whole process is dirty and always has been.”
On the Web
* Phillips Semiconductors: www.semiconductors.philips.com/
* Fluoride Action Network: www.fluorideaction.net