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Beginning in the early 1980s, both Tommy Grimes and Thomas E. Van Meter were telecommunications technicians for the National Security Agency (NSA). As part of their jobs, each had to operate a degausser, made by Electro-Matic Products Co., to erase computer audio tapes by exposing the tapes to strong magnets. Grimes and Van Meter operated the degausser “once every six weeks or so; it was like taking out the garbage,” said defense attorney Harold M. Walter. In 1987, Van Meter was diagnosed with a brain tumor. In 1989, Grimes found out he had a brain lesion. Both were treated by surgery and the growths did not return. Both contended that the electromagnetic field created by the degausser caused their brain abnormalities and filed products liability actions against Farmington Hills, Mich.-based Electro-Matic. For six to eight years at NSA, said plaintiffs’ attorney Theodore M. Flerlage, “Tommy Grimes was exposed to an average of 44 gauss, once or twice a month, for three hours at a time.” Gauss is a measure of the intensity of an electromagnetic field and even minimal exposure is considered dangerous. “This was magnitudes higher,” said Flerlage, adding that Van Meter was exposed “a slightly shorter time.” The plaintiffs claimed Electro-Matic failed to warn of the dangers. Two other workers, Flerlage said, also developed brain tumors; their lawsuits are currently stayed in federal court. NSA stopped using the machines in the early 1990s. Walter dismissed as “junk science” the claim that electro-magnetic fields cause brain abnormalities, but said a challenge for the defense was to explain away four brain tumors or lesions in one workplace. “An epidemiologist testified that this isn’t really that unusual,” Walter said. The defense also noted that over a 35-year period, “at least 30,000 workers had used these degaussers.” The plaintiffs were seeking $10 million each but the court ruled out punitives and then, on April 30, the jury rejected the rest of their claims. No decision has been made on whether to appeal. Plaintiffs’ attorneys: Theodore M. Flerlage, Frederic C. Heyman and Craig Boaz, Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos, Baltimore Defense attorneys: Harold M. Walter and James C. Fraser, Tydings & Rosenberg, Baltimore; Robert F. Redmond Jr. and William W. Belt, LeClair Ryan, Richmond, Va.

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