Link Between Welding Fumes and Parkinson’s Disease

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Appellate Court Upholds $1 Million Verdict in Favor of Worker Harmed by Welding Fumes

MT. VERNON, IL — January 13, 2006 — The 5th District Appellate Court of Illinois has upheld a $1 million verdict in favor of Lawrence Elam, a welder with Parkinson’s disease who was exposed to intense welding fumes. He had sued three welding rod manufacturers—Lincoln Electric, Hobart Brothers, and The BOC Group—charging that they failed to investigate welding rod health hazards and provided inadequate warnings about welding fumes.

On appeal, the companies claimed that they had provided such health warnings. However, the court noted that the warnings were placed on welding cartons. Welders were unlikely to see these warnings because the welding rods were usually removed from the cartons by the time the welder used them.

“Here, the evidence indicates defendants packaged the relevant warnings in a way that virtually guaranteed plaintiff and others within the welding trade would not read them,” Judge Richard Godenhersh said. Also, the warning label itself was directed only toward welders, and not toward welders’ assistants or other bystanders who were within the plume of the welding fumes.

The Dangers of Manganese–Containing Welding Fumes

Welding fumes can release manganese compounds into the air. Manganese is a common part of various types of rock and occurs naturally in our air, soil, and water. It is rarely found alone, and often combines with oxygen and other gases to form compounds. Although food contains trace amounts of manganese, inhaling manganese or manganese compounds can cause serious damage to the brain and nervous system.

At the trial court level, the Elam jurors determined that the manganese in welding fumes caused “central nervous system injury.” The appellate court said that the link between manganese–containing welding fumes and Parkinson’s disease was “significant” and that the defendants breached their duty to investigate the connection. Mr. Elam’s attorneys pointed to numerous medical articles, some dated as early as the 1930s, documenting the dangers posed by manganese exposure. “…[D]efendants were aware of the hazards associated with manganese in welding fumes but ignored the dangers and ignored advice to perform an epidemiological study,” the court commented.

What is Parkinson’s Disease?

About one million people in the United States have Parkinson’s disease, a brain disorder that affects movement and gait. Parkinson’s disease damages brain cells in the midbrain area called the substantia nigra, which produces dopamine, a chemical important in transmitting signals between parts of the brain. Symptoms of Parkinson’s disease include slow movements, body stiffness, poor balance, and shaking or tremors, especially when at rest.

Welders develop Parkinson’s disease at a higher rate than other people do, according to Dr. Paul Nausieda, medical director of the Regional Parkinson Center at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Milwaukee and one of the plaintiff’s expert witnesses in the Elam trial. Dr. Nausieda found that among 20,000 welders, 10% had Parkinson’s disease, as compared with the rate of 1% among the general population.

Besides developing Parkinson’s disease at a higher rate than other workers do, welders may contract the illness at a younger age. In one study, welders had their first Parkinson’s disease symptoms at the average age of 46, about 17 years before most other Parkinson patients (Neurology 2001 Jan 9; 56(1): 8–13).

Your Welding Fume Case

The full text of the Elam case, known officially as Lawrence E. Elam v. Lincoln Electric Company, Hobart Brothers Company, and Airco/The BOC Group, Inc can be found on the Illinois government web site. For more information about welding fumes and your legal rights, please feel free to contact us at Brayton Purcell. We have been handling medical/legal cases for over 20 years, including those involving exposure to harmful substances. We will review your case free of charge and inform you about your legal choices.