Toxic dust from an electronics recycling program run by the federal prison system may have put hundreds of inmates, workers and even their families at risk, according to preliminary findings in a two-year investigation by the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General.
In a letter obtained by ABC News, the Inspector General's office last November requested medical evaluations of more than 300 prisoners and workers who may have been exposed to heavy metal contamination and other hazardous materials in operations to break open computer monitors and extract components. (click here to read the letter)
The ongoing investigation and findings that workers were likely exposed to toxic dust resulted in the suspension on June 27 of recycling operations at a prison in Ohio. They also may pave the way for lawsuits against the Federal Prison Industries, a government-owned corporation known as UNICOR that aims to rehabilitate prisoners through labor. One lawsuit has already been filed in Florida this spring.
Some accuse the DOJ of moving too slowly and failing to remedy the potential exposure problem.
Representative Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich) said he has low expectations for the ongoing investigation. UNICOR has grown rapidly in recent decades to make nearly $858 million in net sales and employ more than 23,000 inmates last year. Hoekstra accused the Justice Department of protecting it because it is "a cash cow."
"It will result in nothing," Rep. Hoekstra told ABCNews.com. "We rail against Chinese prison labor, and what you've got here is a situation where our prisons have exposed our workers to low wages and dangerous working environments, with the full support of the Justice Department and with the full support of the White House."
Tracey Hendrix, a 39-year-old former inmate at a federal prison in Marianna, Florida, is typical of the prisoners employed by UNICOR.
Paid 33 cents an hour, more than double the 12 cents paid to the inmates who worked in the prison kitchen, she dismantled computers in a UNICOR warehouse from 1999 to 2001. UNICOR now pays inmates between 25 cents and $1.15 an hour, and employs 1200 inmates in its nationwide recycling program, according to a recent brochure.
"We didn't have nothing to put on our faces, and we just breathed and coughed all day," said Hendrix, now a resident of Birmingham, Alabama.
She did not learn about potential hazards of the dust in the warehouse until another former inmate told her that she, like Hendrix, had a miscarriage after leaving the facility. Now they believe that the exposure at UNICOR caused their health problems.
"It seemed like everyone that was working with me had a miscarriage," said Hendrix, who is considering joining a lawsuit alleging cruel and unusual punishment.
Twenty-six inmates, UNICOR staff members, their family members and visitors to a recycling operation at Marianna have already joined a suit filed in the northern district court of Florida in March. They accuse UNICOR and the Bureau of Prisons of recklessly endangering workers and prisoners, and list medical complaints including skin lesions, lung and heart problems, cancer, short-term memory loss, miscarriages and general pain that they blame on contaminants. Local union members at a prison in Texarkana, Texas are also considering a lawsuit, according to a union representative.
"Those worries are perfectly legitimate," said Tee L. Guidotti, an occupational health expert at George Washington University's School of Public Health. The growing industry of recycling used electronics, he said is known to be potentially hazardous.
While he could not comment on individual cases, Guidotti said that the inmates' and workers' concerns were similar to those affecting local communities in developing countries like China, where much of the world's used electronics end up. There, informal methods of breaking down computers by hand have resulted in severe health and environmental problems. Done improperly, recycling can release heavy metal dust, and certain methods of applying heat to break down electronics can amplify the effect of toxins, said Guidotti.
A spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons, Traci Billingsley, said that the agency was committed to meeting all federal health, safety and environmental guidelines.
"Safeguards have been in place for several years at all recycling factories to ensure worker protection," said Billingsley.
"These safeguards include baseline testing and medical monitoring of all staff and inmates assigned to the glass breaking operations," said Billingsley.
In interviews with ABCNews.com, many UNICOR workers agreed that conditions improved after Leroy Smith, a former safety manager at Atwater prison in Merced, California, went public in 2004 with a claim that administrators had ignored his repeated warnings. The operations to break open computer monitors now happen in ventilated glass-breaking booths, and prisoners usually wear masks, protective suits, and gloves.
But the recent Inspector General's investigation into recycling facilities at Elkton Federal Correctional Institution in Ohio showed that serious problems remain. Levels of airborne lead dust at the recycling facility at times reached 50 times higher than the federally accepted level for workplaces. During a periodic filter-change operation, the level of cadmium was 450 times higher.
Lead can cause severe damage to nervous and reproductive systems, including miscarriages, said John McKernan, an industrial hygienist at the Center for Disease Control. Cadmium can cause lung damage and bone disease, and has been linked to cancer, he said. And other elements may also be present in used computers, including mercury and arsenic, which can cause skin lesions like those reported by many UNICOR workers.
The factories at Elkton were shuttered on June 27 for a thorough clean-up, said Billingsley, adding that this move went beyond inspectors' recommendations for gradual remediation. It is unclear when or whether the facilities will re-open, she said.
Similar contamination may affect other facilities that have yet to be fully inspected, according to the November 27 letter by the office's investigative counsel S. Randall Humm to an officer at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
The risks are not limited to workers and inmates. UNICOR staff "may have inadvertently exposed their families to heavy metals by wearing their dust-laden work clothes home," wrote Humm.
That, said Guidotti, should never have happened.
"They wore their work clothes home? Yikes. That has been known for years to be a set-up for exposing children," he said.
Kristin Jones is a Fellow at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.