TAMPA BAY, FL – Hundreds of workers at a Tampa factory, the state’s only lead smelter,  have been exposed to dangerous levels of the neurotoxin. The Gopher Resource factory recycles about 50,000 old car batteries a day. It extracts lead from used batteries, melts it down and reforges it into blocks of metal to be sold.

In an 18-month investigation, Tampa Bay Times reporters Corey G. Johnson, Rebecca Woolington and Eli Murray found that workers inside the factory have had enough lead in their blood to be susceptible to a host of health problems – including heart and kidney ailments. Workers also have been given respirators that weren’t powerful enough to protect them when poison levels spiked inside the factory. One worker who endured prolonged exposure to lead during his 32-year career at the factory, died in 2019. Heart and kidney ailments were among the listed causes of death. At least 14 workers at the factory have had heart attacks or strokes in the last five years.

Times reporters spoke to more than 80 current and former workers at the factory. The reporting team also reviewed documents for workers who had high levels of lead in their blood and had experienced health issues that can be caused by exposure to lead – or made worse by it. But when some of these workers were examined by a company-contracted doctor, he cleared them to work. The Times identified 16 children of current or former employees who had elevated levels of lead in their blood. Lead dust from the factory, carried home unwittingly by workers, was the suspected cause of the exposure. No level of lead is safe in children.

Poisoned, a two-part series, debuts today at tampabay.com/poisoned and appears in the Times on Sunday. A second installment of the project, which focuses on the lack of oversight by federal regulators, will publish next week. The series has been reported in collaboration with FRONTLINE, the PBS series, through its Local Journalism Initiative.

Times reporters want to connect with current and former Gopher employees and companies or individuals who may have done business with the plant. To speak with a Times reporter, call 813-421-9106 or email poisoned@tampabay.com.