Former Prison Workers Sue for Heavy Metal Poisoning from Recycling Program


Two former prison employees have filed a lawsuit, claiming that an inmate electronics-recycling program is to blame for their heavy metal poisoning and subsequent illnesses.

Freda Cobb, 49, once worked as a guard and cook supervisor at Marianna Federal Correctional Institution. Because of the memory loss, temporary blindness, ear pain, abdominal pain, migraine headaches, hair loss and other medical issues that she has experienced, however, she is now medically retired—and she is taking her complaint to court.

Hundreds of federal prison workers, inmates and others in Florida, as well as six other states, say that the recycling program has exposed them to toxic levels of lead, mercury, cadmium and beryllium, all of which are found in the televisions and computer monitors that were once broken down with hammers. Roughly 200 workers at Marianna, and 1000 inmates total around the nation, perform this and other tasks as part of the program, which is run by the Federal Prison Industries, aka UNICOR.

This aspect of the recycling process has since been moved to a third-party processing facility, but for economic reasons, said Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci Billingsley, not because of safety concerns.

Cobb, whose mother died in 2006 after developing symptoms similar to her own, says that metallic dust was nearly ubiquitous on the prison grounds. It was blown by fans, carried on workers’ clothing and hair, and inhaled by employees, inmates, children in a nearby daycare center and patrons of a recycled-computer flea market. She and another plaintiff have filed a lawsuit, intending to shut down the Marianna recycling facility as a public nuisance under Florida environmental law.

Reports issued by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA), revealed problems at Marianna as well as at other prisons that housed the recycling program, including failure to conduct adequate planning and job hazard analysis, lack of training for workers, and inadequate hazard controls.

Lead can damage the central nervous system, the kidneys, the lower gastrointestinal tract and the blood, while cadmium and beryllium are both carcinogenic. Mercury is a neurotoxin that affects the brain and is particularly hazardous to fetuses.

Last year, a federal judge dismissed a previous lawsuit, brought by 26 current and former prison staffers, including Cobb, and inmates. It sought an injunction, declaratory judgment and the release of safety documents.

A lawyer for one of the plaintiffs cited the case of 36-year-old Tanya Smith, who died from an autoimmune breakdown that led to cardiac arrest after working at Marianna as a prions guard and being exposed to heavy metal particulate on the premises.

A spokesperson for the prison declined to comment on the ongoing legal proceedings, but said that the recycling process is safe.


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