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Just off the Union Pacific rail line in northwestern Louisiana, inside the Trus Joist plant, giant wooden logs are shaved into strips. Each small sliver is put through a heating press and glued together to manufacture joists used in residential and commercial construction worldwide. The plant sits on the northern edge of Natchitoches, a quaint town of 20,000, made famous as the setting for “Steel Magnolias.”

Over the last two decades, some of the plant’s neighbors began to complain of respiratory problems. Others had pink eye and blamed it on the sawdust that emanated from the plant. More and more residents came forward, some of them former employees of Trus Joist, claiming cancer, heart disease and strokes — illnesses, they said, caused by toxic chemicals in the wood adhesive that permeated the air and ground water.

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