Toxic PCB Contamination At Walmart Return Center Leads To Evacuation, Lawsuit

The Exel warehouse used to process returns from Walmart was evacuated for a toxic contamination in late August.

The Exel warehouse used to process returns from Walmart was evacuated for a toxic contamination in late August.

Hundreds of workers at an Indianapolis Walmart returns processing center may have been contaminated with a toxic substance last month. While the center was evacuated and employees are now undergoing medical tests, one employee has filed a lawsuit against the mega-retailer.

The center, where logistics company Exel processes merchandise returned from Walmart stores, has been empty since August 20 when the building was evacuated after it was confirmed that the toxic substance PCB, or polychlorinated biphenyl, was present, WTHR-TV reports.

PCB is a synthetic organic chemical compound that is highly toxic and classified as a “probable human carcinogen.”

Upon clearing the center, officials with Exel told employees they would receive their full pay and benefits, but would not return to the center until they were told they could come back.

The 600 full-time employees and contract workers were notified five days after the initial evacuation that Walmart had discovered the highly toxic substance in their center.

PCBs, banned in the United States for decades, were once commonly used as coolants and stabilizers in products such as fluorescent light ballasts, transformers, paints, cements, electrical components, pesticides, lubricating oils and sealants

A spokesperson for Exel says the contamination was found by accident, when equipment was being moved inside the center. Third-party testing then revealed the substance was indeed PCB.

However, it is still unknown where the substance came from, how long it had been in the center and how much of it was found.

“It’s a situation that continues to evolve, and we’re working diligently with Walmart to understand it more,” Exel Vice President of Communications Lynn Anderson tells WTHR.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM), which is investigating the case, say elevated levels – 48 parts per million – of the substance were found in a maintenance area of the facility. The levels, while troubling, fell just short of the 50 parts per million exposure reading that requires higher thresholds of environmental oversight.

An IDEM assistant commissioner says early testing has indicated that building materials, such as the caulking used in the 50-year-old warehouse’s concrete floors and insulated siding, may be the potential source of the PCB contamination.

Officials with Exel say they plan to begin independent testing of the warehouse next week, but in the meantime they are actively looking for another facility to restart operations.

WTHR reports that for the past two weeks, full-time Exel employees have been undergoing medical tests to determine which employees were exposed to PCB and if exposure will affect their health. Test results can take up to a month to be returned.

However, contract workers at the facility say they have not been offered testing, assistance or direct communications from either Exel or Walmart.

Despite the companies’ attempts to reassure workers, through meetings and testing, some employees remain upset by the situation.

“We are nervous and we are worried about what we might find out and what might happen to our bodies later,” one employee told WTHR after being tested. “We have a lot of questions, but we have to wait for answers and we do not know what the outcome will be.”

One long-time worker filed a lawsuit, seeking class action status, against Walmart accusing the company of negligence.

“At no point, however, has Exel or [Walmart] informed Plaintiff and the Class as to the extent of the contamination, the length that Plaintiff and the Class were exposed to the contamination, or the results of any inspection or evaluation of the facility,” the suit states.

The complaint requests that the Walmart commit to “a court-supervised PCB surveillance program that would provide ‘temporary, preliminary and permanent equitable and/or injunctive relief’ for medical screening(s) to monitor the short- and long-term effects of exposure to the PCBs.”

Randy Hargrove, a Walmart spokesman told The Indianapolis Star, that the company has yet to review the complaint.

However, he did say the company was cooperating with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and IDEM.

Hundreds of Indianapolis Walmart warehouse workers tested for PCB exposure [WTHR-TV]
Lawsuit filed over discovery of PCBs at Walmart facility [Indianapolis Star]

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