CINCINNATI -- In 2010, when she was not yet a year old, Jeriyah Harrell of Mount Washington was spiking mysterious fevers. Her parents took her to Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center where blood testing uncovered a shocking result: lead poisoning.
Her brother, Jeremiah, 2, also had high lead readings. For months, Anthony Harrell and Danielle Walker were puzzled over their children's sickness. Lead wasn't in the water. There was no lead paint in their home.
"No word could really describe how scared I was," Walker said. "I was terrified. I didn't know that much about lead, but I was angry and scared. We had no idea how this happened. It just kept going around in my head."
When they learned that the dust on the floor of their house was full of lead, Harrell and Walker realized that for a year, Harrell had unwittingly been bringing home lead from his job, on his clothes, shoes and hair.
Harrell was then working full time, at $10 an hour, for WWS Associates Inc., a recycler of electronic waste operating under the name 2trg. In February, Harrell and Walker filed suit in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court against 2trg and several corporate principals accusing the company of repeated violations of federal workplace-safety regulations.
When Harrell got his job in 2009, 2trg had just purchased a new machine, called an Angel-Devil, and the company was positioning itself on the recycling industry's leading edge of salvaging glass cathode-ray tubes inside old computer monitors and television sets for reuse.
By May 2009, the Hamilton County Solid Waste Management District had arranged for consumers to drop off unwanted monitors and TVs for recycling at 2trg's 100,000-square-foot warehouse in the light-manufacturing zone of Kenwood Road.
The Angel-Devil had barely started operating when the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration arrived to test the workplace exposure to lead. Initial testing in November 2009 found that at least 18 of the company's 40 employees at the site had dangerous levels of lead in their blood. One worker had levels nearly nine times the level of lead where the government requires action.
OSHA cited 2trg for 12 violations: The building had no warning signs about lead. Workers were not trained to avoid lead exposure. Harrell and other workers did not have changing rooms and wore street clothes on the job. Workers who wore respiration devices did not get instruction on how to use them.
"They didn't tell me much of anything," said Harrell, 29. "They didn't tell me what I was going to be dealing with. They just said, 'grab your steel-toed boots and go to work.' "
Harrell ended every eight-hour shift by using pressurized air on the Angel-Devil machine to blow down the dust, which then embedded into his clothes and hair. Then, covered in lead dust, he went home and cuddled his children.
Lead is a poison for humans of any age. It is a special threat to young children, affecting development of the nervous system, creating attention-related behavior problems and lowering academic achievement. Lead exposure in adults can lead to tremors, increased blood pressure, miscarriage, psychiatric effects, increased incidents of Lou Gehrig's disease and heart disease.
The surprising source of the lead that poisoned Jeremiah and Jariyah Harrell triggered a national alarm. In July, Dr. Nick Newman, head of the environmental health and lead clinic at Children's Hospital, published a paper through the U.S. Centers for Disease Control warning that high lead exposure from e-waste recycling is "an emerging health concern."
"The patchwork of state regulations overseeing e-scrap recycling in the United States addresses possible damage to the environment, but health-based regulations are lacking," Newman wrote.
The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries says e-waste recycling business in the United States is a more than $5 billion concern processing more than 4 million tons of material every year. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says about 80 percent of U.S. electronic waste is shipped to Asia, where worker lead exposure has become a sweeping problem.
The problem is less with the household owner of an old computer terminal or TV, who can pitch a unit into a landfill. But large commercial users must find a recycling company to dispose of the units.
When Harrell went to work at 2trg, the company had expanded with a $700,000 purchase of the British-made Angel-Devil machine. The device could split a cathode-ray tube to separate the screen, which did not have lead, from the funnel-shaped back end, which was coated with the metal. Workers further broke down the tube's components to separate glass and metals.
Company officials said in a 2009 interview with The Enquirer that the Angel-Devil acquisition made 2trg one of the few places domestically that could salvage cathode-ray tubes. In promotional materials, 2trg announced, "There are less than 10 of these CRT recycling systems in the world, and our Cincinnati headquarters on Kenwood Road has one in full operation. … There are numerous air filtration systems within the unit that are HEPA compliant, ensure safety to our employees and eliminate the exhaust of hazardous components into the atmosphere."
Starting May 1, 2009, Hamilton County Solid Waste Management District directed residents to take old computers and TVs to 2trg for recycling. Other jurisdictions such as Colerain Township and West Chester in Butler County also directed residents to take electronic waste to 2trg. At one point, the Kenwood Road warehouse held more than 25,000 old computers and TVs awaiting processing through the Angel-Devil.
In 2010, OSHA fined 2trg a total of $22,750 for the 12 lead violations. Documents show the company implemented changes in procedures, and the fines were cut to $12,000, which the company paid in 2011. In 2013, 2trg was sold to E-Waste Systems Inc. of Las Vegas. OSHA conducted yet another examination of the Kenwood Road warehouse and hit the business with another $15,000 in fines not just for high accumulations of lead, but for cadmium, another toxic metal used in electronics.
The facility now is closed. A contractor working for the property owner found lead contamination throughout the site in 2014 and cleaned the facility.
Harrell quit 2trg in 2010 and now works at another factory job.
The lawsuit Harrell and Walker filed also names TruStaff Personnel Services, the employment agency that placed Harrell with 2trg. Cincinnati lawyer Joseph Lyon represents Harrell, Walker and the children.
Named in the lawsuit are two officials with 2trg and WWS Associates Inc., Carol Weinstein and Doyle Calvi. Neither returned telephone calls for comment.
Harrell and Walker said they sued to bring attention to the problem of workplace exposure to lead. Jeremiah, now 8, and Jeriyah, 7, now have reduced lead levels in their blood, but the effects linger, with a lack of focus and behavioral problems.
"We just want to get it out there that there are companies out there and they're not telling their employees what they're working around, and it's making people sick," Danielle Walker said.
"What I worry about," Harrell said, "is: Is my daughter going to be picked on because of this issue? Is my son going to be picked on? This still affects me to this day."
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