Hallburton subsidiary KBR told employees at a water injection plant in Iraq a sand-like substance scattered around the plant was just a "mild irritant," workers recall.
It turns out to be sodium dichromate -- a highly toxic chemical which can lead to cancer even with limited exposure.
Now nine Americans are suing KBR, according to a report in Tuesday's Boston Globe. They say they spent 2 1/2 months covered in the substance as they rushed to get the plant online, a key component in Iraq's oil infrastructure.
"Many of the 22 Americans and 100-plus Iraqis began to complain of nosebleeds, ulcers, and shortness of breath," the Globe's Farah Stockman writes. "Within weeks, nearly 60 percent exhibited symptoms of exposure, according to the minutes of a meeting of project managers from KBR, the Houston-based construction company in charge of the repairs."
According to Oxford University, sodium dichromate is a "NTP human carcinogen and IARC human Group I carcinogen. Inhalation, ingestion or skin absorption are harmful, and may be fatal. Exposure may cause cancer."
A material safety data sheet at Fisher Scientific says chronic exposure may lead to ulcers, asthma, cancer and infertiliy.
"Prolonged or repeated exposure may lead to asthma and perforation of the nasal septum," the sheet says. "May cause respiratory tract cancer. May cause liver and kidney damage. Chronic inhalation may cause nasal septum ulceration and perforation. May cause cancer in humans. May alter genetic material. May impair fertility."
KBR may be shielded by federal law
The workers, however, face a daunting task in court. Under a World War II-era law, KBR isn't obliged to pay damages unless workers can prove the exposure was malicious.
But KBR isn't out of the woods. Because the company hired the workers through subsidiaries in the Cayman Islands to avoid paying Social Security and Medicare taxes, the workers' lawyers say they shouldn't be protected as a federal contractor.
"KBR's lawyers argued in a legal brief that the workers should be considered employees of KBR because they were part of a corporate subsidiary that was working on a KBR team," Stockman writes. "The company's spokeswoman, Heather Browne, pointed out that the company's projects in Iraq take place in a 'dangerous, unpredictable environment,' but said the firm maintains an 'unwavering commitment to safety.'"
"Like domestic workers' compensation plans, the Defense Base Act entitles employees in Iraq to medical care, disability, and death benefits, regardless of who is at fault for the injury. In exchange, it generally prohibits employees from seeking any further compensation, even if the employer is at fault," she continues.
"For this reason," she adds, "fewer than 10 high-profile lawsuits have been filed against contractors in Iraq. So far, none has been decided in favor of the employees, lawyers say, although some cases are ongoing."
The workers say KBR's managers discouraged them from raising safety concerns.
"What was done to us, I believe, it's criminal," Danny Langford , a motor specialist from Texas who worked in the most contaminated room in the facility, told the Globe. "I think it was deliberate. They wanted this six month job - get you in, get you out, and send you on your way, and 10 years later you start dying of cancer."