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Uniformly Toxic

  En español

By Javier Sierra

laundry workersRobert Ramírez is but one more victim of what some say are political favors that put the health and safety of workers like him at risk.

Ramírez worked for 11 years at Cintas, the country's largest uniform company. Cintas collects and processes towels soaked with toxic substances, including cancer-causing substances. Robert drove a truck in Las Vegas, NV, collecting in simple, plastic trash bags the dirty towels that were used to clean industrial equipment, and taking them to a laundry facility. Often the bags would break, releasing the towels and their toxic substances.

Once he'd unloaded the bags by hand, other workers would put the towels in washing machines also by hand. Sometimes, the only protective equipment Cintas offered its employees were rubber gloves to handle towels soaked in solvents like benzene, xylene and toluene, all known to cause cancer or other serious diseases.

"We had to handle very nasty things," Ramírez remembers. "We didn't know what was there. But after spending up to nine hours a day in that truck, I felt like I was high because of the solvent."

But Robert still thinks he was luckier than other co-workers.

"There were workers who would enter labs to collect syringes and biohazard waste without any protective equipment or special training. It was reckless," he says.

In summer time, towels coming from industrial kitchens would arrive to the laundry facilities full of maggots.

"The restaurant accounts were some of the worst. You would never eat at any of those places again. The smell was sickening. A couple of times I almost had to head for the bushes to throw up," says Ramírez, who was fired as a Cintas supervisor and now has filed a discrimination suit against the corporation.

Each year, industrial laundries like Cintas handle 3 billion towels soaked with 100,000 tons of hazardous solvents. The EPA, in a document sent to industry members in 2000, explained that these materials had to be regulated as toxic waste because they can start fires, release dangerous fumes and pollute ground water.

For example, Cintas has repeatedly violated its wastewater permits for toxic solvents and other contaminants in many of its laundries around the nation. According to public records, 65 facilities of this $2.7 billion corporation have exceeded pollution limits more than 1,100 times in recent years.

How is it possible that an industry with so much dirty laundry, that permits workers to be exposes to highly toxic chemicals, gets away with these violations?

Since 1997, the industrial laundry industry has fiercely fought the creation of regulations that would provide stronger protection for workers and the environment. The laundry industry launched a $1.2 million lobbying campaign that peaked with the arrival of the Bush administration to power, calling these rules that would protect communities and workers "an extremist view in the EPA" and "overregulation."

In addition, Richard T. Farmer -the chairman of Cintas and one of the country's richest men - and his wife have donated nearly $3 million to the Bush Campaign and other Republican politicians between 1989 and 2002. In the 2000 campaign, Farmer raised more than $100,000 for Bush.

The industrial laundry industry's lobbying efforts and campaign contributions appeared to bear fruit in November, when the EPA proposed a more lax regulation after sharing an advance copy of it with industry lobbyist, whose edits were adopted by the agency. By contrast, workers who handle the towels did not get the same chance to review the document that the EPA gave to the laundry industry. The outcome was an EPA proposal that excludes industrial laundries from federal hazardous and solid waste requirements for shop towels contaminated with toxic chemicals - leaving workers and the environment at risk.

"I think that the EPA failure protect workers from exposure to toxics is criminal. It's a silent way of killing workers."

There is a better way. Environmental groups and the labor union UNITE HERE are urging the Bush administration to adopt strong regulations that provide real protection to workers and the environment

In the meantime, people like Robert will continue to be at the mercy of a uniformly toxic industry.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. The Sierra Club is America's oldest, largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization.

Photo courtesy Gary Schoichet; used with permission.

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