Thursday, August 14, 2003

Hanford HazWaste Workers Worry About Their Health -- For Good Reason

The Seattle Post Intelligencer has a powerful, but frightening article about hazardous working conditions among the workers cleaning up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation where 177 tanks hold 53 million gallons of A-bomb chemical and radioactive waste.

Many workers have complained about chemical exposures. But as in many workplaces in this country,
Many workers are afraid to come forward and complain, Hanford watchdogs and whistle-blowers say. Electricians such as Young can earn up to $90,000 a year, and work at the nation's largest nuclear cleanup site is steady.

But for some, the fear of being sickened by the gases has finally trumped the fear of losing their jobs. They're afraid the exposures are responsible for a suite of health problems, ranging from black tongue to numb gums. And there's the specter of hidden diseases that strike years later.
One of the more amazing sections describes workers having to fight to be able to wear respirators:
Earlier this year, one worker was sent to the hospital with a swollen, sore throat after breathing strong vapors. In May, another worker asked for leaking seals to be replaced at two tanks where employees have sought medical attention because of the gases. Officials said they're working on the problem.

CH2M Hill officials defend their policy not to provide masks to everyone whenever they want them, saying they can do more harm than good.

The masks can be hot, making workers in the Eastern Washington desert vulnerable to overheating. They can obstruct vision, inhibit communication, and make workers more prone to trips or falls.

To receive an air-purifying mask, workers must have a medical checkup, be properly fitted and get approval from an industrial hygienist.

"They may or may not be issued a respirator depending on the situation," said Rob Barr, manager of environment, safety and quality with DOE's Office of River Protection, which oversees the tanks.
Reading the article, I'd be nervous too, espcially with the assurances that "'The only health effects we see ... are immediate effects,' said Buffi LaDue, an epidemiologist with the foundation. 'It clears up within 45 minutes to an hour or so.'"

Now where have we heard that before?

Nevertheless, workers are encouraged not to worry:
The U.S. Department of Energy, which is responsible for overseeing the Hanford cleanup, and the contractor responsible for the project, CH2M Hill Hanford Group, insist that tank-farm workers are safe.

They say there is no evidence of long-term health effects from the gases, there is adequate monitoring of the vapors, and protective masks are available when warranted. A committee was created last year to answer questions about the vapors.
This is the Bush Department of Energy speaking. Are these people you would tend to trust about long term health effects, especially cancers, which can take 20 to 30 years to show up?

In the "lessons (not) learned" department, the article notes that
This spring, Hanford workers dating to the 1940s finally began receiving checks from the federal government to compensate them for radiation-related cancers and other debilitating ailments. So far, $5.3 million has been paid to 40 current and former workers, while more than 450 have had their claims denied.

Afraid of becoming the next generation of casualties, Young and others want easier access to masks that filter air, or to have masks with air pumped into them or supplied in a tank.
Read the article. Then scroll down to the article on the European "precautionary principle" and ask yourself where you'd rather be working if you're interested in getting to know your grandchildren.