Prison Staff and Inmates Exposed in Computer Recycling Plant

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Prison Staff and Inmates Exposed in Computer Recycling Plant

No Anti-Contamination Safeguards in Place for Years at Federal Penitentiary in Ohio

Washington, DC — Federal health officials found staff and inmates had no protection against exposure to high levels of lead and cadmium in a prison industry computer recycling plant located in eastern Ohio, according to a report posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The amount of health damage or risk could not be assessed because the Elkton Federal Correctional Institution did not conduct medical monitoring or industrial hygiene surveillance.

The July 16, 2008 report by officials from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) was submitted to the Justice Department Office of Inspector General as part of its system-wide review of all the recycling centers. This Justice Inspector General inquiry has been ongoing for more than two years following a whistleblower disclosure from a prison safety manager, Leroy Smith. At the Inspector General’s request, NIOSH is also conducting similar reviews of recycling operations at the federal prisons located at Atwater (CA) and Texarkana (TX). Besides these three, four other federal prisons conduct computer recycling: Ft. Dix (NJ), Lewisburg (PA), Marianna (FL), and Tucson (AZ).

In November 2007, NIOSH found staff and inmates are being exposed to concentrations of lead and cadmium far above permissible limits in Elkton’s industry computer recycling plant but the plant was not shut down until this June. In its latest report NIOSH found that –

  • For several years, “there was no respiratory protection used or any type of engineering control in place to minimize exposures;”
  • In addition to no medical monitoring of inmates or staff, the prison did not “until recently” utilize an industrial hygienist; and
  • While recent recycling operations have improved, lead and cadmium dust is still migrating out of the factory into “inmate housing and staff vehicles.”

“Prison industry managers have exhibited what can only be called callous indifference to the health of their own staff, their families and the inmates within their charge,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization assisted Leroy Smith with his 2004 disclosure. “We are still waiting for the Justice Department, which is responsible for federal prisons, to take appropriate action.”

Bill Meek, Vice President of the union representing affected staff at Elkton (AFGE Local 607), issued a statement expressing continuing concerns and frustration:

“This report verifies our concerns about our staff being exposed over the years to these dangerous toxins…They started this recycling program knowing that there were dangerous chemicals in these computer monitors and willfully chose to do so without first putting even the most elementary safety measures in place. The thing that baffles us is that even when test results came back showing exposure, they still did not do the right thing. They went from having nothing in place to putting in an unfiltered exhaust system that blew the contaminants out of the roof apparently only to be reabsorbed thru the institutions air handling systems back into the factory and adjacent buildings.”

The Justice Department Inspector General has not said when it will issue its final report on the federal prison electronics recycling operations.


Read the NIOSH report

View the full union statement

Look at the 2007 NIOSH report and learn more about the background of the issue

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