Doctors told Barbara Fulcher last week what she's told herself in her heart for years - a toxic chemical from the foam plant next door has found its way inside her body.
She wonders if it also caused her daughter's brain tumor, her son's seizures and the poor health of her sister, brother, in-laws and some neighbors.Maybe it did or maybe it didn't.
But her blood is the strongest evidence to date that a multimillion-dollar company that makes foam and foam fiber for the furniture industry - Trinity American Corp. - is making people sick.
``I'm shocked - I feel violated,' she said. ``But at least it's proof of what we've been saying all along.'
Fulcher, as well as a federal employee sent to test the air near Trinity this summer, has developed antibodies to a toxic chemical used in making the foam. It means that they have been exposed to extremely high levels of the chemical toluene diisocyanate, said Bill Furney, a spokesman for the state health department.
And it's likely making some of Fulcher's family and neighbors ill too, he said.
State officials defended their decision to shut down the foam and fiber plants in northern Randolph County on Tuesday, as 70 plant workers marched outside the office of the state health director in Raleigh.
A worker even called 911 to complain about the quality of air outside the director's office, a move echoing a 911 call made in Glenola on Sept. 3. That's when the state made the latest findings, touched off a neighborhood evacuation and closed Trinity.
The antibodies are the deadliest torpedo fired at the company in the fight that has split Glenola, a small community of about 500 people on a stretch of U.S. 311 dotted with a few factories and tobacco fields.
At issue are 170 well-paying jobs at a company that pours $14 million into the local economy versus the health of its residents.
Some neighbors say they are suffering from asthma-like symptoms and burning eyes, symptoms of the foam chemical. Others say they feel fine and portray Fulcher, 47, her brother David Deaton, 52, and sister Nancy Cone, 44, - all neighbors - as being vindictive or out for money.
Signs that the company may soon be out of business and its employees may be standing in the unemployment line are everywhere.
Company president Jerry Drye said it was a ``death sentence' when the state ordered the plants shut down indefinitely last week, after tests showed unidentified compounds in the air.
He has already spent more than $2 million on new equipment and testing to try to comply with the state's orders, when emission problems were detected in 1995. A prolonged shutdown will bleed the company to death financially, Drye said. Layoffs are expected this week, and the company is directing some employees to fill out paperwork at the unemployment office.
Drye said it's not fair because he has followed every state order and regulation. Drye has claimed for nearly two years, since the state first started looking into complaints about Trinity, that ``either the state is out to get Trinity or it doesn't know what it's doing.'
But Furney said this is something that falls outside of regulations and zoning. ``What you have is a human lab experiment with people living so close to the factory.'
Furney and other state officials say the difference between Trinity and the seven other foam factories in the state is the proximity to its neighbors. All the foam plants use the TDI chemical, Furney said, but the other plants have a larger buffer zone between the factory and its neighbors, allowing more space for the chemical to dissipate.
Jobs shouldn't come over health, say Fulcher, Deaton and Cone. And they say the plant should have been shut down years ago.
Suspicion that something was amiss started when family dogs and neighborhood cats suddenly died in mysterious fits, first in 1985 and again in 1992.
They looked to the plants next door with suspicion. Deaton started making home videos of leaking barrels at Trinity and dead animals found nearby.
Fulcher's children used to make mud pies in the creek before the foam plant was fined $6,000 by the state in the 1980s for discharging a toxic chemical into the creek. Stay away from the creek, was the order from then on, for everyone.
Then Fulcher's two children came down with seizures in the early 1990s. Maybe the damage was already done, she said.
Fulcher's daughter Melissa and at least four neighbors developed brain tumors in the early 1990s, state health officials say.
No direct link has been proven to the tumors, but doctors have determined that toluene diisocyanate, or TDI, (the chemical that Fulcher developed antibodies against) is a probable cancer-causing agent, state health officials said. In the summer of 1996, questions over TDI emissions forced the plant to shut down twice.
Some of the neighbors claim to have suffered symptoms of TDI exposure. More neighbors are being tested for effects of the foam chemical, which include nausea and symptoms of asthma. ``You breathe and it's a feeling like you're suffocating,' Fulcher said.
For years, the toxins rolled out of the plant's vents for hours in a semisweet fog. It spread across Glenola with a smell like burned apple cider and plastic that neighbors say stung their eyes and skin and hurt all the way down their throats.
Nancy Cone's son Elliot, 7, is an autistic boy who would bang his head against the wall in a fit brought on by the fumes, she said.
Deaton said the headaches and nausea would get so bad, he couldn't mow his lawn. Deaton has nothing against foam. He couldn't make his living without it. He owns 3-D Upholstery Co. Inc. But he said he breathed clean air last week after the plant was closed.
Many of the workers called last week's evacuation a hoax and pointed to lawsuits filed by Fulcher and her family against both Trinity and the state as a motive.
Fulcher and her family have accused the plant of poisoning them and brought these contentions in a lawsuit against the company in 1995. They also filed a civil tort with the N.C. Industrial Commission (a stepping stone to a lawsuit) against the state in April 1997 for not being tough enough on the company. Both legal complaints ask for an unspecified amount of money and both hang in legal limbo for now, waiting for hearing dates.
Fulcher said they had to bring the complaint against the state as a way to get the health department to act more quickly in the future.
``We've been living with this for years, trying to get someone to listen,' she said.
Some neighbors wouldn't join their lawsuit but complained just as loudly. Finley and Joann Strickland, who lived across the street from Trinity, say they moved because of the plants. They don't believe in lawsuits, he said, but they now live in Thomasville.
``My wife has no more headaches and no more heart problems,' he said. ``Every winter she'd lose her voice, except for this winter. We weren't there.'
Some people living near the plants think everything is fine.
Truck driver Roger Parrish, 55, also lives across from Trinity. He's lived there for 20-some years and has no problems with Drye or his company. ``As far as I'm concerned, Jerry Drye is as good a neighbor as you can get. I think he's getting a bad rap.'
``Down here, these neighbors had that dog to die. They autopsied it and wanted Drye to pay for it all. That's how this here mess got started.'
The latest shutdown comes after more than two years of the state health department working with the company and two temporary shutdowns because of questions over emissions.
``We've done everything the state wanted,' said Roger Schaefer, 33, who has made the foam for 10 years. ``If it was something bad, wouldn't it have affected us? I've worked dead in the chemicals and I've never been sick.'
As for anyone in the plant getting sick, Furney said the gas containing the TDI is vented up and out of the plant, much the way a chimney takes the smoke out of a house.
``You can have emissions coming out of the stack without them going into the factory,' Furney said. ``The truth is, we don't know if workers are getting sick.'
Last month, agents of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health weren't allowed inside Trinity for an inspection. Trinity officials hotly contend that the federal agency had no right to go on a ``fishing expedition.'
But the state holds to its stance that something is wrong at Trinity, said Furney and Stan Music, the chief of the occupational and environmental epidemiology section of the Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources.
It can't reopen until it proves to the state that it's not a health nuisance. ``Until then, they can knit dresses, or they can make socks, but they can't make foam safely,' Music said.