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Nuke Site Workers Report Ailments

November 3, 1999
3:40 a.m. EST

RICHLAND, Wash. (AP) -- Hundreds of former Hanford nuclear reservation workers are reporting a number of work-related ailments, mostly diseased lungs and hearing loss, researchers said.

In one of two national medical screening projects, 98 percent of 900 construction workers surveyed believed they had been exposed to hazards at Hanford, and 86 percent believed their health had been affected.

``These perceptions of workers about concerns for their health (are) largely borne out in results we're getting from (subsequent) medical examinations,'' said Knut Ringen, project director for The Center to Protect Workers Rights.

A summary of early findings from Ringen's project -- the Hanford Building Trades Medical Screening Program -- and the University of Washington Former Hanford Worker Medical Program were presented at a news conference here Tuesday.

The screenings are the first independent, science-based evaluations of health risks to former production and construction workers who worked at Hanford anytime in its 56-year history.

Hanford was established as part of the secret Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb during World War II. Today, the mission at the 560-square-mile site in southeast Washington state is cleaning up the radioactive and hazardous waste created during 40 years of plutonium production for the nation's nuclear arsenal.

The screening programs, paid for by the Energy Department, were ordered by Congress and started three years ago to determine whether workers experienced significant health risks as a result of their jobs at DOE sites.

Roger Briggs, Hanford health studies coordinator for the DOE in Richland, said the findings will help the agency find better ways to protect current worker health and safety.

The projects also found:

  • Nearly half of former Hanford production workers had initial chest X-rays showing abnormalities. Eighteen percent had diminished lung function, when the comparable average for the same age range would be about 5 percent.
  • Seventy percent of workers had hearing loss, compared with about 50 percent for a comparable industrial population. Eighty-five percent of those surveyed reported hearing impairment, compared with 22 percent in the general population.
  • More than 5 percent of those tested were positive for beryllium sensitization. Beryllium is a metal that was used at Hanford and can cause lung disease. Between one-third and one-half of those workers can expect to develop lung disease within five years, researchers said.