Despite the fact that tests indicate no long-term effects from exposure to thallium, union officials representing Cominco workers are considering legal action.
The grounds for a possible lawsuit lie in the fact that Cominco knew about the presence of thallium before work began on the Trail, B.C. lead-zinc smelter project.
Seventy boilermakers and carpenters started maintenance work at the plant on Aug. 6. They began experiencing nausea, sore throats and diarrhea around Aug. 20, sending some to hospital. Cominco tested employees two days later and the plant was shut down on the following day.
Thallium is a tasteless, colourless, odourless metal that occurs naturally in soil and in ores such as lead. However, in high doses, it can be toxic – it has even been used as rat poison.
The workers were exposed to extreme levels of thallium. Urine tests showed levels up to 27 times higher than what is permissible. Full results from blood tests should be available shortly.
In the meantime, preliminary test results indicate no serious problems with kidney, liver or neurological function. Long-term effects from exposure to thallium can include hallucinations, reproductive problems, delerium, hair loss, heart and kidney problems, and, in extreme cases, death.
The B.C. and Yukon Territory Building and Construction Trades Council is angry that, because Cominco did not disclose the presence of thallium, workers did not take necessary precautions. It also wants the workers’ families tested.
Cominco has admitted that it knew thallium was present and that it should have warned workers. The company is conducting its own investigation of how the omission occurred.
It’s not the only one looking into the situation. The B.C. Workers’ Compensation Board is also investigating safety measures at the plant. The WCB can fine an employer up to $500,000 for negligence that causes injury to workers.
The workers themselves are also demanding a public inquiry into why they were exposed to such high levels of thallium. They want to know why Cominco didn't disclose the presence of thallium to workers and also why the Workers' Compensation Board declared the smelter a safe work site before issuing a stop-work order.