Family: Prison Worker's Death Caused by Toxic Dust

Former Officer Suing Unicor for Alleged Toxic Dust Exposure on the Job Dies


August 8, 2008—

A former Florida correctional officer suing the Federal Prison Industries for allegedly exposing her to toxic dust on the job died last week.

Tanya Smith, 36, passed away at her home in Cottondale, Fla. on Aug. 1. The precise cause of death has not yet been determined, but her mother said that her heart failed.

"We surely believe that federal prisons started all of this," said Smith's mother, Doris Baker, who lived with her. "We all believe that. Won't nobody admit it."

For years, Smith has been suffering from a series of heart and lung problems she believed she developed working at the prison.

Just four months before her death, Smith joined 25 other workers, inmates and visitors to the correction facility in Marianna, Fla., who claim that the Federal Prison Industries (known as Unicor) recklessly endangered them by exposing them to harmful metals from electronics recycling operations without proper safety gear.

Her death is not the first lawyers claim was a result of the toxic exposure. The lawsuit lists 12 other deaths from the Florida facility.

ABC News reported last month that prisoners and inmates working in Unicor's nationwide electronics recycling program were likely exposed to harmful amounts of lead and cadmium, according to a preliminary finding in a Justice Department internal investigation. Unicor runs recycling facilities at eight institutions nationwide, including the one in Marianna.

The ongoing two-year probe found that operations in at least one Unicor recycling facility lacked proper medical surveillance, respiratory protection or industrial hygiene monitoring as recently as 2003. That facility, in Elkton, Ohio, was closed indefinitely in June.

Bureau of Prisons spokesperson Traci Billingsley said that the safety of staff and inmates was a top priority.

"We are committed to ensuring continued compliance with all applicable health and safety regulations," she said.

Smith, who went to high school in the city of Marianna, first began working at the federal prison there in 1999. She swept the area where prisoners dismantled computers for the recycling program run by Unicor.

Computer recycling is known to be hazardous to workers if performed without adequate safeguards, occupational health experts say. Operations to take apart electronic equipment can release huge amounts of dust containing dangerous elements like lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic.

But Smith said in an interview with ABC News in June that prison officials never told her of any safety hazards or gave her any protective gear.

So Smith said she was puzzled when, after starting at the plant, she began getting headaches and had difficulty breathing. In 2004, she collapsed at work and was hospitalized in a coma. It was then that Smith said she learned she had a pulmonary embolism, a blockage in the lung that can be fatal. The following years spiraled downward with diagnoses of lupus, kidney disease, blood clots, and heart and respiratory disease, according to the lawsuit. Despite open-heart surgery and multiple blood transfusions, Smith remained in a wheelchair.

Her only answer was that she had been exposed to harmful chemicals on the job. Prison officials have not admitted the program caused any health problems and Billingsley noted that operations to break cathode ray tubes -- which experts consider the most dangerous part of the job -- did not begin until after Smith left the prison in 2006.

Smith joined the lawsuit because she believed that her former employer had a responsibility to protect the inmates and workers, she said.

"I'm not angry," Smith said in June. "But I think they could let people know you need to wear a mask before coming into the area, and keep the gate locked, so the dust can't just get through there."

Kristin Jones is a Fellow at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.