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Engineer claims damage from PCBs at Westgate Hotel

Exposed

George Gueria was an engineer at the posh Westgate Hotel on Second Avenue downtown from 1978 to 1984. now he's designated by the Social Security Administration as "totally disabled." he contends in a lawsuit filed in February of 1985 that his disability resulted from exposure to PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), and extremely hazardous chemical with which he says he frequently came into contact while working near electrical transformers at the hotel. "People are screaming about the PCB spills into the bay, which amount to less than what's inside my husband," remarks Guerin's wife, Dorrallene. "Well, I'll tell you what's going to happen if you're exposed. Your marriage will break up, you'll break out in open sores, your teeth will fall out, you'll lose your business, you'll lose everything. If people knew what's going to happen in them, they'd be a lot more scared."

All of that and more has befallen Geoge Guerin, who is 32. Guerin's duties as an engineer at the hotel included regular checks of the tree electrical transformers on the top floor of the 19-story building. According to allegations in court documents and medical reports, between 1980 and 1984 there was a more or less constant leak of coling oil from one of the transformers and Guerin routinely cleaned up this leak with rags, towels, mops, and cat litter. He alleges that the oil sometimes soaked his hands and clothes, as well as his shoes, and that the also breathed fumes from the oil. Guerin says that he thought the oil was harmless, and the contaminated rags, towels, and mops were not treated as hazardous by the hotel's staff. He says he used white plastic food buckets from the hotel's kitchen to carry the rags and his oily tools, and when he was finished cleaning up the transformer leak, these buckets would be returned to the kitchen.

Dan Bushnell, an attorney representing the hotel in the lawsuit filed by Guerin, terms such allegations regarding possible spreading of PCBs throughout the hotel as "a lot of b.s. Mr. Guerin would not say those things under oath during deposition." however, Hospicio Lacanlale, who worked with Guerin as an engineer at the Westgate and who remains an employee there, confirmed in an interview last Monday that rags, mops, food buckets, and towels used to clean up the PCB-laden oil were not treated with any special caution. "We didn't know it was dangerous," he said of the leaking cooking oil. Lacanlale added that two washing machines used to launder hotel staff uniforms, where his and Guerin's clothes were washed, also were used to wash maid and kitchen staff uniforms, as well as some of the guest hand towels and washcloths.

Lacanlale has also filed suit against the hotel, alleging that management personnel knowingly exposed him to the harmful chemical. he says he has been seeing Guerin's doctor for treatment of symptoms similar to Guerin's; in his lawsuit he claims to have developed gum problems, hypertension, and various other physical ailments, and that lab test have shown the presence of high levels of PCBs in his blood. (Dr. Edward Jackson of the University of California Medical Center, who diagnosed Guerin's PCB contamination in November 1984, declined to speak about either Guerin or Lacanlale.

Guerin's medical reports state that in 1982 he started getting headaches in the back of his head. His ability to concentrate tailed off, along with his energy level and his work outside his regular job began to flag. Guerin had been something of an inventor. He engineered a special type of carburetor, which he had designed and built a small helicopter powered by an ultralight airplane engine. His design of a low-slung "recumbent" bicycle, which maximized the leg efficiency of the rider, was said throughout the United States, according to him and his wife. He built the bikes in his machine shop at home, and his wife handled the business side. "We had everything. We were on top of the world, "Dorrallene say. "And now it's all gone."

According to a nine-page medical report written Last year by psychiatrist David -Brief, chief of inpatient psychiatry at the UCSD Medical Center. Guerin is now suicidal, severely depressed, subject to recurring nightmares, and unable to eat much belies milk and bread; the report says he is suffering from organic brain damage and is unable to work as a "direct result of PCB poisoning."

When Guerin first started getting sick, his wife began to woodier if it had anything to do with his work around the transformers. She was aware of the news reports about the Environmental protection agency banning PCBS from use in electrical equipment because the chemical had caused cancer in laboratory animals. In July of 1984, she persuaded Guerin to bring home a sample of the oil. Which she subsequently had tested at the Quality Assurance Laboratory on Miramar road. The tests showed the oil had an extremely high concentration of PCBS.

"When the tests came back, I just about fell over," Dorrallence recalls. They called Cal-OSHA, the California occupational safety and health Administration, which sent a man to the hotel to check the leaking transformer. According to Isaac chase of Cal-OSHA, the agency found a large puddle.

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