Poisoned Workers &
Poisoned Places
USA Today Series
Poisoned Workers and Poisoned Places
Secret project carried hidden dangers
In the 1940s and '50s, the U.S. government secretly hired scores of private companies to process huge volumes of nuclear weapons material. But the companies were not prepared for the hazards of handling nuclear material. Workers were not informed of the risks. Thousands were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. Government reports were classified and buried. The result is a legacy of poisoned workers and communities that lingers to this day. The full story of the secret nuclear contracting has never been told, until now.
Toxic Legacy
At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. government secretly hired hundreds of private companies to work on America's nuclear weapons program ,Äî and never told the workers or communities of the dangers they might face from radiation and other hazards.
The Workers
Many of the surviving workers now have higher risks for cancer and other ailments, but there has been almost no effort to learn whether such problems have occurred. That oversight might cost those who have gotten sick a chance for compensation.
The Environment
Radioactive and toxic contamination at many of the contracting sites lingered for years, sometimes with serious health risks. Some still are not cleaned up, ignored by federal programs meant to address pollution from nuclear weapons production.
Full story
'Devil is in the dose' Only beryllium workers slated for compensation Few efforts made to study occupational illnesses Military bases used in hazardous processing Food and crops, transport workers exposed _____
Poisoned Workers And Poisoned Places By Peter Eisler
About this series...
USA TODAY investigative reporter Peter Eisler spent 10 months on the "Poisoned Workers & Poisoned Places" project. He:
Examined more than 100,000 recently declassified documents that detail the work done by private companies for the nuclear weapons program and the information that researchers kept about the workers.
The reporting took him to archives in Washington, D.C.; Atlanta; Albany, N.Y.; and College Park, Md. The records are mostly from the files of the Atomic Energy Commission and the Manhattan Engineering district.
Visited sites where the work was done, or directed other reporters to them, in 10 states. Eisler and the other reporters interviewed more than two dozen people who had worked at such plants or are relatives of such workers.
Interviewed more than 30 medical and scientific experts, and current or former government officials. He also interviewed a dozen congressional staffers, union officials and activists.
Created a computer database that categorizes the information he uncovered about the sites where work was done. There is no index for the records at any of the archives.
Filed a half dozen Freedom of Information Act requests for batches of documents not readily available at the archives.
In addition to that work, USA TODAY contracted with the Institute for Energy and Environmental Studies, a non-partisan public interest research group, to perform "dose reconstruction" studies. Those studies, based on the records uncovered by Eisler, provide estimates of how much radiation workers were exposed to when doing the weapons work. The institute did similar research for workers at the government-owned Fernald manufacturing facility. The federal government later settled a suit by those workers, who alleged they were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. _____
Chapter 1 - Secret Program Left Toxic Legacy
By Peter Eisler - USA TODAY September, 2000
The U.S. government secretly hired hundreds of private companies during the 1940s and '50s to process huge volumes of nuclear weapons material, leaving a legacy of poisoned workers and contaminated communities that lingers to this day.
From mom-and-pop machine shops to big-name chemical firms, private manufacturing facilities across the nation were quietly converted to the risky business of handling tons of uranium, thorium, polonium, beryllium and other radioactive and toxic substances. Few of the contractors were prepared for the hazards of their government-sponsored missions.
Thousands of workers were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation, often hundreds of times stronger than the limits of the time. Dozens of communities were contaminated, their air, ground and water fouled by toxic and radioactive waste.
The risks were kept hidden. In some cases, they have remained so.
A USA TODAY investigation finds that the government's reliance on a vast network of private plants, mills and shops to build America's early nuclear arsenal had grave health and environmental consequences. Federal officials knew of severe hazards to the companies' employees and surrounding neighborhoods, but reports detailing the problems were classified and locked away.
The full story of the secret contracting effort has never been told. Many of the companies that were involved have been forgotten, the impact of their operations unexamined for half a century. Yet their history carries profound implications for the thousands of people they employed, as well as for the thousands who lived ,Äî and still live ,Äî near the factories.
At a time when the nation is reassessing the worker ills and ecological damage wrought by large, government-owned nuclear weapons plants, the record of the private companies that did the work before those facilities were built has had little scrutiny.
Most of the contracting sites were in the industrial belt: through New England, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, around the Great Lakes and down the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys. They were in big cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and St. Louis. And they were in smaller communities, such as Lockport, N.Y., Carnegie, Pa., and Joliet, Ill.
Some did only minor amounts of work for the weapons program, but dozens of private facilities handled large quantities of radioactive and toxic material. "These places just fell off the map," says Dan Guttman, former director of the President's Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, which was set up in 1994 to investigate revelations that government-funded scientists exposed unknowing subjects to dangerous isotopes in secret Cold War studies.
"People were put at considerable risk. It appears (the government) knew full well that (safety) standards were being violated, but there's been no effort to maintain contact with these people (and) look at the effects," says Guttman, a lawyer and weapons program watchdog who has returned to private practice since the committee finished its work in 1995. "There's no legitimate reason for this neglect."
USA TODAY reviewed 100,000 pages of government records, many recently declassified and never before subject to public review, to assess the scope and impact of nuclear weapons work done at private facilities in the 1940s and '50s. Reporters visited former contracting sites and archives in 10 states and interviewed scores of former employees, people living near the sites and government officials.
Key findings: Beginning with the development of the first atomic bombs during World War II, the government secretly hired more than 200 private companies to process and produce material used in nuclear weapons production. At least a third of them handled hundreds, thousands or even millions of pounds of radioactive and toxic material, often without the equipment or knowledge to protect the health and safety of workers or nearby communities.
The contracting wound down in the mid-1950s as government facilities were built to take over most weapons-building operations ,Äî a move spurred partly by hazards at contracting sites.
The government documented health risks at many of the private facilities doing weapons work, producing classified reports that detailed radiation exposure rates hundreds of times above its safety standards.
The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, hired by USA TODAY to provide an expert review of old radiation data on three contracting operations, estimates that workers in the riskiest jobs had a 40% chance of dying from cancer ,Äî an increase of 200% over the general population ,Äî as well as higher odds for respiratory and kidney ills. But there's no telling how many, if any, workers have gotten sick or died from their exposures; they've gotten virtually no medical study.
Dozens of companies doing weapons work contaminated the air, soil and water with toxic and radioactive waste. Secret studies done at the time documented some operations that pumped hundreds of pounds of uranium dust into the air each month and others that dumped thousands of pounds of solid and liquid wastes.
Both the government and executives at the companies it hired for weapons work hid the health and environmental problems.
Federal officials misled workers, insisting their jobs were safe despite having evidence to the contrary. Surviving employees still have not been told of their risks, though screening and early treatment could boost their odds for surviving some illnesses they might face as a result of their work.
Likewise, communities were left unaware of toxic and radioactive waste spilling from behind the innocuous facades of businesses. The secrecy that shrouded the weapons program's contracting still masks residual contamination at some sites; other sites have never been checked for problems.
"It was a different time, the Cold War was on," says Arthur Piccot, 81, who monitored health and safety at some contracting sites in the late '40s and early '50s for the weapons program.
Producing weapons "was the priority, period," he says. "People didn't (fully) understand the risks." _____
Chapter 2 - Secret Job, Secret Threats
In March 1948, when the first rail cars of uranium and thorium began arriving at the Simonds Saw and Steel Co. in Lockport, N.Y., Lewis Malcolm felt lucky to have a job on the plant's big steel rolling mills.
In the weeks before he died of kidney failure in June, Malcolm wasn't so sure.
At 79, his once-strapping frame was so withered that his wife had to help him to the car and then drive him 30 miles to a Niagara Falls hospital for the weekly dialysis treatments that kept him alive these past few years.
He wasn't bitter about his illness ,Äî one of several linked to the kind of uranium dust exposures he incurred during his years at Simonds. Just curious.
"I've wondered whether something like that could be a cause of this," he said in an interview before he died. "There was a lot of dust. We thought there might be problems. They took urine samples. Sometimes they sent us to the doctor (for exams). They always assured us there was no danger."
Malcolm started at the steel mill in the late 1930s, at age 18. He left to serve in the Army during World War II, returned in 1945 and stayed 30 years until he retired.
In 1948, workers were told they would be rolling a new metal, a government job they would work part time each month. The shipments arrived with armed guards who stayed until the metal billets all had been heated and milled into long rods of a precise diameter, often 1.45 inches.
"I told (a guard) one time that I stole a piece, and I really got chewed out, almost got fired," recalls Ed Cook, 84, another Simonds retiree. "I was just kidding. The billets weighed 200 pounds. What was I going to do, carry one out in my lunch bucket?"
The workers learned that this was serious ,Äî and secret ,Äî business. Many recall federal agents visiting their homes to do background checks and warn them not to discuss the plant's new activities.
By the time the contracting wrapped up at Simonds in the mid-1950s, the company had heated and milled 25 million to 30 million pounds of uranium and 30,000 to 40,000 pounds of thorium. Much of it was rolled into fuel rods for the government's plutonium-producing nuclear reactors in Hanford, Wash.
Federal officials suspected soon after the operation began that it was putting workers in danger.
In October 1948, the medical section of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) found "hazardous concentrations" of airborne uranium dust in a site study. The most highly exposed workers were, on average, breathing the dust at levels up to 190 times the "maximum allowable concentration" of the time.
"This operation results in profuse atmospheric contamination," AEC medical experts warned in another report in 1949. "To satisfy Hanford's urgent need for rolled metal, it was necessary to begin (the work) before suitable (safety) controls could be installed."
Over the next few years, the AEC medical section urged Simonds repeatedly to boost safety. The company implemented some orders, building new ventilation systems and issuing coveralls that were laundered each day. Others, such as demands that the plant install a vacuum system to clean radioactive dust, never were implemented.
In 1954, an AEC survey at Simonds found that levels of thorium dust, which poses far greater radiation hazards than uranium, reached 40 times the federal limit ,Äî "too high, even for intermittent operations."
AEC staff pointed out to Simonds' management in a follow-up letter that recommendations for safety upgrades, including mandatory respirator use, "were not followed." But a later memo reported that the mill superintendent resisted such ideas and "intimated that if it became necessary to install elaborate dust eliminating equipment, further work of this nature would have to be abandoned."
As was often the case, the AEC backed off, too dependent on Simonds to risk losing the company.
'Horrible' exposures
Based on the worker exposures documented in the old AEC reports, workers in the most dangerous jobs suffered annual lung doses of radiation well over 130 rem (a unit of radiation measurement), according to estimates by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, a think tank that specializes in assessing radiological risks. The doses ranged up to 10 times the federal safety standards of the day.
"These exposures are unconscionably high," says Arjun Makhijani, the institute's director, who has written several books on radiation risks and provided expert testimony for Congress. "At the high end of the (estimated) doses, workers' risk of dying from cancer was increased by more than 20%. Many of the workers would also be expected to have kidney damage."
Most of the surviving workers have no idea of the risks they faced: Neither the government nor Simonds' management ever informed them of their radiation exposures.
"They never told us any more than they had to," says Charles Leavitt, 71, a Simonds retiree with kidney trouble. "There were respirators around, but I don't ever remember seeing anyone wear one. They never gave us a reason, never said there was a health risk."
In fact, an AEC information sheet for workers at contracting sites stated that "there will be no danger to anyone's health." The 1947 memo told workers they might "hear the word radiation" mentioned on the job, but it assured them that the level would be "so slight that special instruments must be used to detect it."
Even extreme doses of radiation can't be detected without special instruments.
There's no way to know whether the health problems later suffered by some Simonds workers are the result of the uranium and thorium work. The sort of studies that might conclusively link illnesses to their exposures have never been done.
Congress and the Clinton administration are considering legislation to compensate people who did the same sort of work at government-owned weapons plants and later contracted certain cancers and other ailments tied to their jobs. But the bill makes no promises to compensate people who worked at Simonds or most other private facilities. It notes only that workers at commercial sites may be considered for eligibility in the future.
"It sure would help," Malcolm said of the idea in the interview before his death. He was spending about $550 a month on medication and private insurance he'd had to buy since his health benefits from Simonds disappeared with the company's demise 20 years ago. His monthly pension from the steel mill totaled about $580. A few years back, he and his wife, who also collected Social Security, sold the little farm where they ran a roadside produce stand and moved into a tidy mobile home.
"I asked my doctor whether my (lung and kidney) problems could be related to the work we did, and he said, 'Could be; you just can't know for sure.' You just have to go along with it." _____
Chapter 3 - Many Sites, Many Risks
There were sites like Simonds all over the country.
After World War II, U.S. officials decided to build on the Manhattan Project, the top-secret military program that yielded the first atomic bombs, and launch a full-blown nuclear weapons production effort.
The AEC, a civilian agency set up by Congress in 1946 to run the program, recognized that the government lacked the manufacturing facilities and expertise to do the job alone.
Initially, the AEC simply renewed contracts with a small group of companies that had been hired to do work for the Manhattan Project. But with the Soviet Union's detonation of its first atomic bomb in 1949, the Cold War arms race was on, and the AEC, moved to a far more aggressive weapons-production schedule. The number of private companies hired to work for the weapons program multiplied.
"Not all contractors are safety-conscious since in every case they are chosen primarily because of (production) capabilities," warned a 1947 memo to AEC officials from Bernard Wolf, medical director in the commission's New York office. "Hazards to public health of AEC operations have been given inadequate consideration."
Wolf, now dead, advocated a strong "regulatory" program to see that contractors ensured worker safety; he also noted the need for "studying the waste disposal problem." But his recommendations, like those of many health and safety officials in the coming years, were not fully implemented. The commission's main goal was to get a lot of weapons built quickly.
"It was almost like being on a wartime footing," says Richard Hewlett, official historian for the weapons program from 1957 to 1980. "The commission approved (operations) that in a normal, peacetime atmosphere would not have been approved."
Most of the AEC's contracting involved uranium, used in various forms as a fissionable explosive for weapons and as raw material to make plutonium, the core of most nuclear weapons. But there were plenty of other toxic and radioactive jobs given to private companies.
Hazardous duty
Some examples of the types of operations ,Äî and risks ,Äî that defined the contracting effort:
Big uranium-refining and -processing plants in Cleveland; St. Louis; Canonsburg, Pa.; Deepwater, N.J; and outside Boston and Buffalo handled some of the most dangerous operations. At Harshaw Chemical Co. in Cleveland, for example, classified AEC studies in the late '40s and early '50s found that employees faced "severe exposures" to uranium dust and beta radiation, and workers' kidneys regularly showed signs of uranium poisoning. During that time, records show, the plant also pumped 350 to 500 pounds of uranium dust from its stacks each month, spewing it over nearby areas. The site remains contaminated.
Steel mills and metal-working shops cut and forged uranium, thorium, beryllium and other hazardous material. At Vulcan Crucible Tool and Steel in Aliquippa, Pa., some workers breathed uranium dust at 200 times the AEC's safety limit, records show. At Revere Copper and Brass in Detroit, dust levels of uranium and beryllium, a chemical that causes lung disease, hit 20 times the standard. Residual pollution was common. A 1980 federal survey of the Carnegie, Pa., site where Superior Steel rolled uranium for the weapons program found radiation in scrap pits and floor areas well above safety standards. Plant owners later had the areas cemented over; federal officials decided there was no need to check the fix.
Chemical and metallurgical companies produced an array of specialized metals, compounds and solvents with radioactive and toxic properties. Workers making polonium at plants run by Monsanto Chemical in Dayton, Ohio, routinely were found to be excreting high levels of the radioactive element in their urine, records show. At Carborundum Metals in Akron, N.Y., where hafnium and zirconium were refined for weapons use, federal officials endorsed the dumping of hundreds of thousands of gallons of ammonium thiocyanate waste into a sewer that ran into the Niagara River.
The contracting network set up by the weapons program "was like a root system spreading into all different sectors of (American) industry. The companies were really diverse," says Timothy Karpin, an industrial historian who has spent the past five years doing research for a "traveler's guide" to nuclear weapons production sites.
The AEC began to move away from using private facilities to do weapons work in the early '50s, building a network of government-owned complexes. The federal plants typically were run by commercial contractors, which still employed some subcontractors to do certain jobs at private facilities. And a number of commercial firms also did radioactive and toxic work for the AEC Naval Reactor Program, which built power plants for nuclear ships and submarines. But most work at private sites ended by 1960.
The AEC "wanted to get things standardized and keep more control over the operations," says James Maroncelli, another historian working with Karpin. "It was about efficiency and secrecy." _____
Chapter 4 - Defining The Danger
From the earliest days of the nuclear weapons program, health and safety were secondary concerns. Officials at the Atomic Energy Commission recognized that they had to define and minimize the risks of the weapons-making process. But the White House, Congress and the Pentagon demanded that production run at a feverish pace.
Plans for cutting health and environmental risks at contracting sites, which usually involved slowing or interrupting operations, often got shelved.
Through the 1940s and '50s, classified studies repeatedly found that many of the private firms hired to do weapons work were grossly violating the commission's worker safety standards. If the problems were corrected, and many were not, it typically took years. Canceling contracts or imposing serious sanctions were never seen as options for forcing companies to adopt new safeguards.
Health and safety officials generally had little choice but to go along.
"The purpose was production. Health and safety was not the chief purpose of these (operations)," says Richard Heatherton, 81, who joined the AEC as an industrial hygienist in the late '40s and stayed as a health and safety expert for the weapons program until 1980.
It's difficult to pinpoint how many people worked at companies hired by the weapons program. A 1949 AEC report noted that at least 3,000 men had been involved in uranium work at just a half-dozen or so of the private sites. Based on records, including workforce figures for some of the contracting outfits, USA TODAY estimates that at least 10,000 people had been employed by the early '50s at commercial facilities that handled radioactive and toxic material for nuclear weapons.
"I don't think there was any intent on anyone's part to harm anyone," Heatherton says of the problems at many companies. "If, for example, you recommended ventilation yes, they'd intend to put it in, but it wasn't done overnight. You wouldn't stop production to put in new ventilation, so we did a lot with other things, like respirators, which was far from ideal, but you did what you could."
Similarly, efforts to control environmental contamination were pursued only until they threatened to slow down the weapons-making effort.
At a June 1949 meeting of the AEC's Advisory Commission on Biology and Medicine, officials acknowledged that there was little interest in curbing toxic and radioactive waste at uranium-processing operations in Cleveland, St. Louis and elsewhere. "There is a reluctance, naturally, on the part of production people to authorize expenditure of funds to clear these places up," the minutes reported.
Yet, while officials running the weapons program weren't always keen on fixing health and environmental problems at contracting sites, they certainly wanted to know all about them.
From the moment the nuclear weapons program began, and especially once the AEC took over, health and environmental conditions at private contracting sites were studied closely. Officials wanted to know how much time workers could spend on particular jobs before suffering ill effects. They wanted to know what sort of risks the contracting operations posed to nearby communities.
The resulting reports were used to determine what safety features should be included in plants the government built to take over many operations that had been done at commercial facilities. And they were used to assess the government's potential liability for health and environmental problems.
The studies were closely held and highly classified, in many cases well into the 1990s, largely because they revealed secrets about weapons work. But other factors that had nothing to do with security also played a big part in the AEC's decision to keep the risky nature of its operations under wraps.
"Papers referring to levels of soil and water contamination surrounding AEC (operations) and papers dealing with potential process hazards to employees are definitely prejudicial to the best interest of the government," said a 1947 AEC memo circulated to top officials. The memo noted that associating such problems with work done by the AEC or its contractors would cause "an increase in insurance claims, increased difficulty in labor relations and adverse public sentiment." _____
Chapter 5 - Laid To Waste
The brick remains of Simonds Saw and Steel sit empty now, fenced off to the public, marked with signs warning of radiation hazards. Federal programs set up to address pollution from nuclear weapons work have passed it by.
The 9.1-acre site lies in a section of Lockport devoted to industrial development. But the Simonds property, now owned by a bankruptcy trustee in Philadelphia, is unfit for human use. Its total assessed value, buildings included, is $150. "We actually have a shortage of good industrial land, and the (Simonds) site has good potential for light industrial use," says Edmund Sullivan of the Niagara County Planning Department. "We'd like to see that site cleaned up and back on the tax rolls. We think it's a federal responsibility."
The U.S. government has spent decades arguing quite the opposite.
When the AEC hired Simonds to roll uranium and thorium metal, it included a "hold harmless" clause in the contract. It essentially freed the government from liability for damage done to Simonds' site or its workforce as a result of the weapons work. The AEC included such clauses in virtually all its contracts.
They have been used by U.S. officials over the past 20 years to rule out federal cleanups at a number of former contracting sites that remain contaminated from their weapons work. This summer, New York state filed notice of its intention to sue the Department of Energy, the modern-day steward of the nuclear weapons program, to force a federal cleanup at the old mill. It might be the first serious test of the "hold harmless" clauses.
"The U.S. government's failure to clean up the site, despite its clear legal duty to do so, is inexcusable," New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer says. "The citizens of New York continue to live with a serious radiological threat because of federal foot-dragging. It's a disgrace."
The Energy Department recently offered to recommend that Simonds' pollution finally be considered for federal action. The state wants a firmer ,Äî and more immediate ,Äî commitment.
Like many of the contaminated sites left over from the government's nuclear weapons contracting operation, Simonds poses little imminent public health risk. Most of the radioactivity is "fixed" in the plant's walls and soil, unlikely to move off the site or affect anyone who doesn't regularly spend time on the abandoned property.
But if the land is disturbed, or if buildings are torn down, there's a risk that the radioactivity could be released into the air or migrate into water supplies. State estimates for cleanup: $18 million to $50 million.
Early knowledge
The AEC knew early on that waste from its work at Simonds was polluting both the plant and the surrounding area. In a 1949 report circulated to top commission staff, health and safety officials noted that contaminated water, used to quench heated uranium and thorium rods, was dumped directly into the local sewer system. They proposed a study to determine the amount of radioactivity in the water, but it appears that was never done.
In 1950, an inspection of the plant found radioactive dust on many rafters and ledges. AEC officials surveying the site also noted a "substantial increase" in uranium dust exiting the plant from ventilation exhaust stacks.
Simonds' management resisted some requests to clean up the steel mill, records show. After AEC work at the site was finished in the mid-'50s ,Äî the rolling and milling was shifted to the new, government-owned Fernald uranium processing plant in Cincinnati ,Äî the commission hired a private firm to decontaminate Simonds.
That effort, mostly wiping dust off exposed surfaces in the plant, was enough for the AEC to deem the site clean enough for "unrestricted use."
In 1977, the government came back for another look. A federal survey found radioactivity in the plant and nearby soil at levels far above modern-day safety limits.
But based on the "hold harmless" clause in Simonds' old government contracts, the site was deemed ineligible for government cleanup. Officials notified state and local environmental agencies and walked away. The plant has been shuttered for nearly 20 years, but the fight over who should clean it up has continued.
A few years ago, a homeless man was found living in the building. Local officials worried about his health, but he declined medical attention and moved on. _____
Chapter 6 The damage question There's no telling how much health or environmental damage may or may not have been done at the scores of sites where companies secretly worked for the nuclear weapons program.
The big federal studies that have identified increased rates of cancer and other illnesses among workers and neighbors at government-owned weapons plants never looked for problems at privately owned facilities that did similar work, often with far fewer safety precautions. And some contracting sites still have never been checked thoroughly for contamination.
Yet federal officials recognized 50 years ago that such follow-up would be necessary.
In a 1949 report on risks to workers at private facilities processing uranium for the AEC, medical officials in the commission's New York office warned that "this large reservoir of potential damage should, if at all possible, be followed carefully in the future.
"Unless this is done," the report added, "there could be a considerable lag between the appearance of disease conditions and the recognition of their etiology," or cause.
Many in the AEC expressed the same sort of concerns about environmental contamination.
"It is unthinkable that AEC would permit the discharge of long-life radioactive or toxic wastes into the ground or waterways without ascertaining, within reasonable limits, what effect these actions will have," said a classified 1948 memo by one of the commission's top sanitary engineers. "Similarly, disposal of wastes from plant stacks or (exhaust) hoods into the atmosphere carries with it a responsibility to all who may be affected."
The memo, sent to many of the AEC's highest officials, noted, "At each of our producing plants and laboratories, the disposal of toxic and radioactive wastes presents an actual or potential serious problem (and) their discharge to the atmosphere (and) soil, to sewers or to waterways involves hazards of various degrees."
The AEC did monitor workplace hazards and ecological problems at many of the private company sites that did its weapons work, but only while those operations were ongoing. Despite the protests of some health and safety officials, those studies were almost never, as a matter of policy, shared with workers or neighbors who might be affected.
And once the government closed its contracts, it did not go back to review long-term effects.
It wasn't until the late 1970s that the government launched an effort to address contamination from nuclear weapons production at private contracting sites. But the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP) has been politicized and under-funded. It has not checked for contamination at some properties where companies did hazardous work and the investigations it did often proved inadequate.
Moreover, many sites where FUSRAP did find radiological problems (its surveyors generally did not look for chemical toxins) were deemed "ineligible" for cleanup because of old "hold harmless" releases.
On the worker health front, there's been even less effort to account for the impact of the weapons program's contracting efforts.
Twice, the government has sponsored limited studies.
In one, researchers found in the early 1990s that workers who did uranium refining at the Mallinckrodt Chemical Co. in St. Louis showed increases in lymphatic, esophageal and rectal cancers and a dramatic rise in kidney diseases. A study during the early 1980s of workers who processed uranium at Linde Air Products in Tonawanda, N.Y., also found sharply higher rates of certain cancers and respiratory ills.
It's past time to "fill out the story," says Robert Alvarez, former special adviser to Energy Secretary Bill Richardson on health and safety issues.
"The nuclear weapons program was far more widespread, and contamination and worker health problems were far more ubiquitous on a national scale" than the government has acknowledged, adds Alvarez, who now works as a private consultant and was briefed on USA TODAY's investigation. "The systemic failure to provide a safe working environment and to protect and warn people (at risk) played out at these sites every day. The companies should be held responsible, but ultimately, they worked for the government."
The Clinton administration has made a more aggressive effort than ever before to boost federal accountability for the health and environmental legacy of nuclear weapons production.
In the past year, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson offered the first government admissions that the nuclear weapons program caused widespread health problems, but his official statements focused almost exclusively on the problems at big, government-owned production plants and labs. And the legislation now being considered to offer compensation to workers with a wide range of illnesses leaves it to future administrations to decide whether employees at most private contracting sites should be covered.
The bill "is written broadly enough so it would clearly include people at these other facilities," says the Energy Department's David Michaels, who argues that Congress, with its regional constituencies, would not let a future administration cut workers from private sites out of the deal. "We've written this legislation knowing there are lots of places out there. We think eventually we'll get to all of them, but we didn't want to write specific sites into the bill because we knew we would (miss) some of them."
As for environmental contamination, Energy Department reports in recent years have occasionally noted problems associated with work done on the property of private companies. But relatively few of those operations were named specifically, and there's been no compilation of a comprehensive public registry of all the places where that sort of work took place.
In the absence of concerted federal action, many workers and communities aware of risks they may face because of nuclear weapons contracting operations have learned to live with them.
"If I'd have known (about the hazards), I would have asked more questions, taken more precautions," says Nick Cappola, 80, a Simonds retiree who milled much of the thorium that came through the plant and remains in good health. "I guess I'm lucky. But if I'd have known everything, all of it, I still would have stayed there."
Why? Cappola shrugs his shoulders as if the answer is obvious: "Five kids."
USA TODAY research by Susan O'Brian and Jean Simpson _____
USA Today Series - Part Two
Research Ignores Private Nuclear Contractors
By Peter Eisler - USA TODAY September, 2000
Academics and federal scientists have done dozens of studies on illnesses and deaths among workers employed at federal weapons plants.
But there's been virtually no research on people who had often-similar jobs at commercial facilities that the government secretly hired to do weapons work in the years before the government plants were built.
Some of the studies of federal workers found significant increases in the rates of cancer, kidney disease and pulmonary problems linked to radioactive and toxic exposures.
But USA TODAY found only two health studies that focused directly on workers at private contracting sites and one that touched on them tangentially.
A rundown:
A study of workers at Mallinckrodt Chemical Works, begun after a 1987 series in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch detailed the company's role in early nuclear weapons production, concluded in 1998 that workers had a 10% higher death rate from all types of cancer than the general population.
The rate for lymphatic, esophageal and rectal cancers, however, was 40% above the norm. The study also found a 218% higher rate of kidney illnesses among Mallinckrodt workers.
A 1987 study of workers at Linde Air Products in Tonawanda, N.Y., one of the weapons program's big uranium refining operations in the '40s, found that workers died of cancer at a rate 18% higher than the general population.
The study, done in response to legal pressure from the union representing Linde employees, also found that workers in the uranium operation suffered respiratory illnesses at rates up to 200% above the U.S. average.
A study of workers at the government's Mound polonium plant near Dayton, Ohio, noted that workers at Monsanto's Dayton contracting operation in the years before the federal plant was built suffered significant increases in death rates from lung, rectal and other cancers. The study also found that death rates from respiratory diseases were notably higher than the national average.
In 1983, researchers hired by the government to do the Linde study proposed that they also look at workers employed at other private contracting sites, including Harshaw in Cleveland and ElectroMet in Niagara Falls, N.Y. But the proposal was rejected because it would be difficult ,Äî and expensive ,Äî to track all the workers. _____
Chapter 1 - Worker Risks Weren't A Priority
By Peter Eisler - USA TODAY September, 2000
CLEVELAND ,Äî In January 1948, Bernard Wolf came here to assure workers at Harshaw Chemical Co. that the uranium they secretly processed for the government's nuclear weapons program posed no threat to their health.
In fact, Wolf, a medical director with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, had evidence of serious dangers. His staff had done classified studies at Harshaw's restricted "Area C" plant and found that concentrations of radioactive uranium dust in the air reached 200 times the safety limits of the day.
Having alerted Harshaw to the problems, Wolf wanted workers' urine checked for signs of kidney damage. But company officials worried that the tests might alarm employees, so they asked that he come out first to allay any fears among the men.
"It is easy to understand that extensive sample-taking of this character may cause (workers) to wonder about their health," Wolf's boss wrote to Harshaw executives just after the doctor's trip. "It was for this reason that Dr. Wolf (visited) to explain to them that all of our records indicated that no unusual hazard existed."
Actually, the severe hazards already documented at Harshaw were getting worse.
By late 1948, medical officials in the nuclear weapons program were reporting that nearly all of the 100 workers at Area C were overexposed to radioactive dust, with a third of them breathing 140 to 374 times the safety limit. Wolf, who is now deceased, raised concerns that the exposures could cause cancers, kidney problems and other illnesses that might not show up for decades.
"Workers (at Harshaw) will have to be followed medically very carefully in the future to detect the earliest signs of any damage," Wolf's staff reported.
But after Harshaw's work for the nuclear weapons program ended in the mid-1950s, no one returned to check the workers' health or tell them of their risks.
Here and elsewhere, thousands of workers were left in the dark about the often severe hazards they faced while working for private companies that were hired secretly in the 1940s and '50s to process radioactive and toxic material for nuclear weapons. Fifty years later, many of the survivors have increased chances of cancer, as well as kidney, lung and other diseases as a result of their work. But there's been almost no effort to learn whether such illnesses have occurred or contributed to any deaths.
Now, with Congress and the Clinton administration trying to account for illnesses among nuclear weapons workers, people who labored at commercial facilities employed by the arms program in its early years may be missed again. Congress is expected to vote in coming weeks on legislation to provide special compensation to men and women with health problems linked to nuclear weapons jobs, but that legislation promises mainly to cover those who were employed at government-owned sites that ultimately assumed most weapons-production operations.
"The people at these (private) places have essentially been forgotten," says Michael Sprinker of the International Chemical Workers Union, which represented people at some companies.
"They paid a huge price for fighting the Cold War," he adds. "It would have been one thing if they'd made the choice: 'OK, I'll take the risk because this is important for the country or because it's a good job that can support my family.' But they didn't make that choice. They were told this stuff wouldn't hurt them. The government has to take some responsibility."
As USA TODAY reported Wednesday, hundreds of companies quietly shifted their plants, mills and shops to nuclear weapons work under classified contracts and subcontracts with the weapons program in its early years. Many of the sites did only limited work, but dozens handled large volumes of material, sometimes for a decade or more before the government finally had its own weapons-making facilities ready to take over in the mid-1950s.
The newspaper conducted scores of interviews and studied 100,000 pages of records on the operations, many of them recently declassified and never before made public. Findings:
For decades, the government suppressed classified reports on dozens of contracting sites where workers faced extreme levels of radiation and airborne toxins from beryllium, fluorides and other dangerous chemicals. One 1949 survey of hazards at seven firms processing uranium in St. Louis and Cleveland and at facilities outside Pittsburgh and Buffalo found high radioactive dust levels at every one. Of 648 workers at those sites, the partially declassified survey noted, 40% had average exposures at least five times the safety limit; 10% were at least 125 times the limit.
Federal officials and executives at contracting companies often misled workers about their risks because of fears that they would seek hazard pay, sue for damages or demand safer conditions. The weapons program repeatedly killed plans to give workers details on their radiation exposures. "It is necessary to consider whether (such a policy) would serve merely to alarm employees unnecessarily, invite baseless claims, and complicate collective bargaining," noted a 1956 memo circulated to top program officials.
Recommendations for reducing workplace dangers often were shelved because the government thought they might interfere with production and the contractors didn't want to spend the money. In a 1949 report, medical officials in the weapons program urged that hazards be cut "despite existing operational pressures." But noting the need "to keep costs to a minimum," they suggested that an incremental approach "seems more logical than assuring safe results by over-designing" protections.
The lack of medical follow-up on people who did nuclear weapons work at private facilities makes it impossible to say how many of the 10,000 or so people those facilities employed over the years may have gotten sick.
But experts hired by USA TODAY to review some of the old health studies estimate that workers in the most hazardous jobs have substantially higher risks for cancer and other illnesses.
"Most all the guys are dead now. Cancer, kidneys, lung problems, you see a lot of that," says John Smith, 87, a Harshaw retiree who worked on the uranium-processing operation. "I feel lucky to be alive, but I'm worried. It makes you bitter, them knowing about the risks and not telling. If I'd known, I would have quit."
Wednesday, USA TODAY revealed the untold story of the role played by private companies in the Cold War. This is the story of what happened to the workers. _____
Chapter 2 - Calculated Risks
Soon after the first private companies were hired during World War II to help build the first atomic bombs, the government launched a highly classified effort to measure workers' exposure to hazardous substances and monitor the effects. Plants were checked for radiation and air quality; workers got urine tests and physicals. Later, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which took over the weapons program in 1947, also collected tissue samples.
"All we did was pass the word among the physicians in the hospitals, if they run across any surgical cases or postmortem (exams on) uranium workers, that we would like to have kidney, lung, bone," Merril Eisenbud, a top AEC health official, said in an interview with federal officials before his death in 1997. "Did they get permission? I don't know."
By the late 1940s, workers at some of the companies were showing signs of kidney damage and respiratory ailments from breathing air laced with uranium, thorium, beryllium and fluoride compounds. Suspicious cancers also were surfacing. The numbers, while relatively small, bolstered concerns that more serious and widespread problems lay ahead.
But the immediate demand for more weapons tended to overwhelm such long-term worries.
"People doing health (oversight) were caught in the middle," says Gilbert Whittemore, a lawyer and senior researcher for a presidential panel set up in 1994 to investigate revelations that the weapons program did secret Cold War radiation studies on unknowing subjects. "They were trying to establish enough authority and credibility to enforce (safety) standards and on the other hand not interfere with the weapons-production effort."
Initially, the balancing act was a wartime necessity.
In June 1945, just two months before U.S. planes dropped atomic bombs on Japan, the weapons program's medical chief more than tripled the "maximum allowable concentration" of radioactive dust in air at contracting plants. Studies suggested the higher exposures would be tolerable, his directive said, and "given the extreme difficulty in maintaining (the prior limit) in industry, such a change will be of definite benefit in expediting the war effort."
The war's end in August did little to ease the demand for weapons, particularly once the Soviets' first atomic bomb tests kicked off the arms race in 1949. By 1951, more than 150 private facilities had received contracts to do nuclear weapons work. Violations of safety codes remained common, and the limited efforts to protect unwitting workers often fell short.
At Electro Metallurgical Co. in Niagara Falls, N.Y., which processed uranium from 1943 to 1952, radioactive dust levels often soared to hundreds of times the prevailing safety limits. (The company failed to even vacuum work areas, despite being "persistently instructed," a 1949 AEC memo noted.) But when AEC medical officials suggested that the commission could pay for new ventilation, higher-ups balked at the cost. It would be only a few more years, they reasoned, before federal facilities would be built to take over the work.
The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, which was hired by USA TODAY to review the records, estimates that during peak years workers' annual lung doses of radiation ranged from 50 to 6,000 rem -- measurements up to hundreds of times the limits of the day. Based on conventional risk formulas, exposures toward the high end of that range, even for just a few years, translate into a "very high probability" of cancer and kidney ailments, the institute reports.
The cost concerns that stymied action at ElectroMet were not unusual. But more often, the major obstacles were operational.
At Monsanto Chemical plants in Dayton, Ohio, for example, urine tests on workers processing polonium often showed levels of the radioactive element many times the "maximum tolerance." Health officials reported in 1946 that the plants could not meet quotas "without having certain individuals go above (the) tolerance level."
The Dayton project, run in an old playhouse and other leased facilities through much of the 1940s, was the sole source of polonium used to trigger nuclear weapons. So it was decided that workers with up to twice the allowed level of contamination in their urine would still be assigned to "hot" areas whenever necessary.
While big operations such as Dayton and ElectroMet tended to have the biggest problems with worker exposures, their troubles weren't unique.
Smaller steel mills and metallurgy shops that cut and pressed uranium and thorium metal into nuclear fuel rods ,Äî places such as Joslyn Manufacturing in Fort Wayne, Ind.; Bridgeport Brass plants in Connecticut and Adrian, Mich.; and William E. Pratt Manufacturing in Joliet, Ill. ,Äî often exposed workers to radioactive dust levels that were tens of times the safety limits.
Other companies had problems with non-radioactive but highly toxic chemical compounds such as beryllium, which causes lung disease. At Hooker Chemical in Niagara Falls, N.Y., which made additives for uranium refining, weapons program officials noted in a 1944 report that fluoride and chlorine vapors filled the air "to such an extent that breathing was difficult."
Most contractors "were supposed to do a certain amount of production work and be done with it, but it ended up being much more," says Alfred Breslin, 76, a health physicist in the weapons program from 1948 to 1980 and a co-author on many of the old studies of private facilities. "The initial controls were not always adequate. For the most part, (upgrades) were done, not as fast as we would have liked in many cases."
The federal facilities built in the 1950s to take over the work boasted special ventilation, mechanized operations and other safety features absent at private sites. At the government's Fernald complex in Cincinnati, which assumed uranium and thorium processing, new worker safeguards reflected "experiences encountered at the old (commercial) plants," a 1951 AEC memo noted.
Even so, in 1994 Fernald workers won a broad government settlement that included health monitoring, arbitration of disputed worker compensation claims and $15 million in compensation after charging in a class-action suit that they had higher risks of cancer and other illnesses from radioactive and toxic exposures.
Hidden dangers
The frontline workers at Harshaw were practically the only ones involved in the weapons operation there who didn't know about the risks they faced.
By 1948, the plant was one of the weapons program's two biggest producers of uranium compounds. Te other was Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in St. Louis. Both were notorious among AEC health officials for safety problems.
As radiation levels at Harshaw soared, commission officials repeatedly warned the company, but their recommendations for corrective action were ignored. "No significant progress has been made in correcting the hazardous conditions," one top AEC manager wrote in a testy 1949 letter to Harshaw executives. The AEC official added that the company "could correct all of these conditions (if) management were seriously concerned."
But such worries had no effect on the AEC's production quotas. By 1950, the plant was running up to 24 hours a day, and workers' radiation and fluoride exposures continued to climb.
It wasn't until the early 1950s, almost 10 years after Harshaw began doing weapons work, that new, dust-catching ventilation hoods were installed in the plant and the air quality problems began to subside. Records suggest the change was driven as much by the AEC's desire to recoup precious uranium as by health concerns.
Some workers suspected that their jobs might be more dangerous than they were led to believe. Suspicions grew as men were mysteriously taken out of the plant after urine tests. In one 10-month period spanning 1950 and 1951, nine workers were dispatched with kidney ailments diagnosed as uranium poisoning. But there were no explanations.
"No one ever told us there was a problem," says Smith, the Harshaw retiree. "The guys who got pulled out, we thought it was because there was something already wrong with them, maybe they were drinking too much and it showed up in their urine."
The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, based in Maryland, estimates that workers with the worst cumulative radiation exposures at Harshaw got the equivalent of a whole-body radiation dose of about 1,000 rem. That level corresponds to a 40% chance of dying from cancer over a lifetime and a 200% increase in cancer risk compared with unexposed persons. Their chances for kidney and respiratory problems are also substantially higher.
Surviving workers recall dust coating the plant floor. It stung their faces, gave them rashes.
The men were told to wear respirators during some tasks, but "they were uncomfortable," says James Southern, 76, who worked on Harshaw's uranium operation in the late 1940s and '50s. He notes that many men used the masks only sporadically and rarely bothered to change the filters. "They never told us why we needed them. If they had, they wouldn't have had anyone working there."
Providing detailed information to workers was never seen as an option. Reports on operational hazards, like most weapons program documents, were "born secret": automatically classified unless specifically censored for release.
In 1949, when AEC medical officials sought to publish a paper generally discussing hazards at weapons-making sites, declassification officers directed that mentions of worker exposures at specific sites be deleted. The cuts "do not necessarily involve (secret) data," they wrote, "but (were suggested) on the basis that they are unnecessary references or might be bad from a public relations and an insurance point of view." _____
Chapter 3 - Filed And Forgotten
The secrecy surrounding the nuclear weapons program's early contracting operations has resulted in a paucity of research on whether employees at Harshaw and other sites suffered any harm from their risky jobs. Many workers still are reluctant to talk about those days, recalling the background checks and loyalty oaths that were a condition of their employment. Few know of the hazards they faced. There have been no lawsuits, no organized efforts to come forward with their stories.
"We never thought much about the risks. I think we're paying for it today," says Joseph Krall, 79, who worked at Vitro Manufacturing in Canonsburg, Pa. The company processed millions of pounds of uranium compounds from 1942 through 1957.
In 1951, an AEC health survey at Vitro found work areas where radiation was "dangerously high." Krall, who now has kidney disease, was among the men sent into the big mixing vats, 25 feet wide and 10 feet deep, to sponge up radioactive residue at each day's end ,Äî a job done with no respirator.
"I have to take all these pills now, and that's probably why," he says. "They never said anything about risks. They didn't want us talking about it."
Most of the old reports on the contracting operations sit under decades of dust at scattered federal archives. They are among millions of pages of documents declassified under openness initiatives launched by the Clinton administration. But they have been obscured by a flood of revelations about unsafe practices at big federal weapons plants and secret radiation experiments on human subjects. USA TODAY has been among the first to examine them.
"It's amazing that these individuals (employed by private contractors) have never been tracked down and considered (for study)," says John Till, a nationally known expert on radiation's physiological effects. "Some (exposures) appear to have been very, very high."
Academics and federal scientists have done volumes of research on illnesses and deaths among workers at more than a dozen federal weapons plants and labs, in some cases finding sharp increases in rates of cancer, kidney disease and pulmonary problems. Yet only two modern-day studies have been done on employees from private contracting sites.
Each of those studies, which covered workers involved in uranium processing at Mallinckrodt Chemical and Linde Air Products in Tonawanda, N.Y., found significantly higher rates of several of the same illnesses found at some of the government weapons facilities.
Now workers from the old contracting operations are getting passed over again.
This year, the Clinton administration made the first government acknowledgement that the nuclear weapons program made workers sick. But statements have focused on workers at federal facilities.
The compensation bill now before Congress reflects that limited focus. It would provide $200,000 payments to nuclear weapons workers with various illnesses linked to radioactive and toxic exposures. In cases where a worker has died from such a disease, the money would go to survivors.
But the legislation promises mainly to cover people from federal installations. Workers from most private contracting sites would not be eligible unless the Department of Energy specifically "designated" that their companies had been involved in weapons work.
"From the start, our goal has been to include everybody," says Assistant Energy Secretary David Michaels. "We've written this legislation knowing there are lots of (private) places out there. We think eventually we'll get to all of them, but we didn't want to write specific sites into the bill because we'd just find more next year."
Perhaps, workers' advocates say, but the lack of any deadline for getting sites designated leaves no guarantees that workers from private facilities will be covered.
"Depending on how friendly an administration is to this compensation idea, that (designation process) allows for a lot of foot-dragging," says Richard Miller of the Paper and Allied Chemical Workers Union, which represented workers at some contractors.
"It's really come down to a matter of cost," adds Miller, who is lobbying to expand the bill to cover the private workers. Opponents "say we know almost nothing about these (contracting sites) because there have been no studies. But we know people were put in harm's way, that they weren't told, that these were conscious decisions. It's all about where (Congress and the administration) draw a line. But these people are old, more die every day without receiving one iota of justice."
Many of the workers agree, wondering aloud why their role in the Cold War seems to have been forgotten once again.
"The government should have made sure we knew the risks; they should have made sure the company told us," says Allen Hurt, 77, a Harshaw retiree who worked on the company's uranium processing operation. "They were passing the buck. They still are."
USA TODAY research by Jean Simpson, Susan O'Brian. _____
Beryllium Workers' Plight Gets Attention
By Peter Eisler - USA TODAY September, 2000
One group of companies employed by the nuclear weapons program has received a lot of attention for the risks imposed on workers: beryllium manufacturers.
Beginning in the 1940s, the government hired firms at about 30 private sites to produce or fabricate materials from the non-radioactive chemical compound, which causes a unique, sometimes fatal lung disease. When the Clinton administration began offering the government's first acknowledgments that weapons production jobs made some people sick, commercial firms that handled beryllium were singled out for attention.
Beryllium workers remain one of the few cases in which the government has given specific recognition to health risks faced by employees at private sites engaged in work for the weapons program. Legislation being considered in Congress that would compensate weapons workers for certain occupational illnesses makes specific provision for people at beryllium sites: The Energy Department would get 90 days to develop a complete list of companies the government hired to handle the material, and employees at those sites would automatically be covered by the bill.
Conversely, employees at other private companies hired to process and produce radioactive and toxic material for the weapons program get no promise of compensation for work-related ills. The legislation would allow future administrations to "certify" that such sites were involved in weapons work, which would make employees from those places eligible, but there's no deadline, or requirement, for doing so.
"There's no reason why these other people (employed by companies that did weapons work) should be treated differently," says Richard Miller of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union.
There's been substantial press coverage of illnesses among beryllium workers, led by a groundbreaking series published last year by The Blade, of Toledo, Ohio. Also, chronic beryllium disease, the illness caused by exposure, can only be contracted from direct contact with the element, so there's no denying that workers' illnesses are linked to occupational hazards.
USA TODAY turned up documents dating to the mid-1940s in which officials in the weapons program acknowledged that beryllium work was making people sick. By the late '40s, workers already were turning up with related respiratory problems ,Äî as were neighbors of the beryllium plants, which often pumped toxic dust into the air.
In May 1948, medical officials with the Atomic Energy Commission, which ran the weapons program, reported that "health hazards in the beryllium plants of AEC contractors" were severe enough to consider "a complete shutdown of beryllium operations while a thorough solution to the health problem is sought."
The idea was dismissed.
Records from that era show that some of the worst beryllium exposures occurred at Brush Beryllium plants in Cleveland, Loraine and Luckey, Ohio. But there were dozens of other beryllium contractors doing weapons work at private sites in Alabama, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Utah and Washington.
Many had serious problems, often driven by the government's keen hunger for beryllium, an extremely strong, lightweight material used in metal alloys for a variety of weapons-making materials.
In August 1951, for example, AEC health officials reported that workers' already high beryllium exposures at the Brush plant in Luckey were rising steadily. "The probable reason ... is that greater production rates have been attained."
'Devil Is In The Dose'
By Steve Sternberg - USA TODAY 9-14-00
For three years, Grace Fryer of Orange, N.J., worked for the U.S. Radium Co. Each day, she mixed glue, water and radium powder and applied the glimmering, glow-in-the-dark paint to the numbers on watch faces. When the horsehair brushes lost their narrow tips, she would reshape them with her lips, as her supervisors had advised. "I think I pointed mine with my lips about six times to every watch dial," she told the Orange, N.J., Daily Courier in 1928.
In 1922, two years after Fryer left the factory to take a job as a bank teller, her teeth began falling out and she developed a stubborn, painful abscess in her jaw. Eventually, she and four other women filed a much-publicized lawsuit against her employer. Eventually, the women won a settlement of $10,000 each, plus a $600-a-year annuity and medical expenses. Soon afterward, they died.
At that time, relatively little was known about how nuclear radiation affects human health. The case, perhaps the first involving occupational exposure to lethal doses of radiation, marked the birth of a new science, the study of the health effects of radioactive isotopes.
The field would grow along with the nation's nuclear weapons industry, authorities say, abetted by scientists determined to deepen their understanding of radiation and its risks by exposing thousands of people ,Äî cancer patients, pregnant women, orphans, and military personnel ,Äî to radioactive substances. Also exposed were thousands of workers in government laboratories and weapons production plants, and thousands more in the private manufacturing facilities detailed in this USA TODAY series.
The best information on the risks of these exposures has emerged from intensive research involving survivors of the worst nuclear catastrophe in history, the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As many as 200,000 people were killed immediately or died in the immediate aftermath of the explosions. Scientists have also linked 428 of the 4,863 cancer cases that cropped up in atomic bomb survivors between 1950 and 1990 to genetic damage from the bomb blasts.
Cancer occurs because radiation disables genetic controls on cell growth and replication, says expert Owen Hoffman, of the consulting firm SENES Oak Ridge in Tennessee. Whether the radiation comes from uranium, polonium, thorium or radium doesn't matter; what matters is the amount of radioactive energy deposited in tissue, Hoffman says.
"The devil is in the dose," he says, "not the isotope."
Researchers think of radiation dosages as the amount of energy absorbed per unit of body mass, usually expressed in scientific units as joules per kilogram, says Keith Eckerman, a dosimetry expert at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
Some isotopes are more likely to affect human health following exposure, because they emit more radiation than other isotopes. "Ounce for ounce, the shorter a substance's half life, the more radioactive it is," says Arjun Makhijani, of the Institute for Energy and Environmental research in Takoma Park, Md.
By half life, experts means the time it takes for radioactive decay to diminish the isotope by half ,Äî and then by half again. It takes uranium 235 approximately 4 billion years to lose half of its radioactivity, and another 4 billion years for the remaining half of the isotope to lose half of its remaining radioactivity, and so on. Polonium 210 is far more radioactive than uranium 235.
Scientists measure the amount of radioactive energy deposited in tissue using a unit called a gray. One grey is enough to radiation sickness, marked by nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever and the sloughing off of damaged tissue in the gut. Radiation sickness can kill in hours, days or weeks; with death brought on by infection or uncontrolled bleeding. But people become ill at much lower doses. "The consensus is that there is no dose at which there is absolutely no risk," says Hoffman, of SENES Oak Ridge.
A single absorbed dose of about 0.15 gray to the genitals can cause temporary sterility in men, while 0.25 grays delivered to a fetus at 28 days gestation can cause birth defects and other developmental problems. Studies of the survivors of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki have shown, experts say, that a dose greater than 0.2 gray is enough to significantly increase the number of cancers that emerge in a population. Hoffman says his firm now is under contract to the National Cancer Institute to update 1995 tables reflecting the probability that a given disease was caused by a given exposure. Such tables are the bible for experts who calculate radiation risks.
Researchers have found that:
Uranium and various uranium compounds, used as fuel for plutonium-production reactors or as the explosive in an atom bomb, can affect the body in different ways, depending on how it is processed. If a uranium compound isn't soluble, it's likely to be inhaled as dust and collect in the lungs, eventually causing cancer. If the uranium compound is soluble, it is deposited in bone, where it can cause leukemia by damaging the blood-forming marrow. Uranium and such compounds as uranium hexafluoride and tetraflouride, can also act as a chemical toxin, killing off cells in the liver and kidney. Although about 80% of uranium is excreted in the first day, the remainder can remain in the body for years emitting dangerous radiation.
Polonium, a radioactive decay product of radon that is used to trigger chain reactions in nuclear weapons, behaves differently than uranium. Although polonium exposure is likely to occur by inhaling dust particles in the air, polonium doesn't settle in the lungs as uranium does. It filters into the blood where it is carried throughout the body.
"Polonium's hazards may well be higher than uranium because a larger dose of energy would be retained in the body longer," Eckerman says. Because it travels throughout the body, polonium has been linked to more soft-tissue than bone cancers. Typical sites are the liver, spleen and kidney.
Thorium, used in nuclear reactors producing enriched uranium and plutonium, concentrates in the lungs and in focal points in bone. "It can localize in the skeleton, irradiating critical blood-forming tissues," Eckerman says. The short-term danger is radiation sickness; the long-term danger is lung cancer, leukemia, lymphoma and bone cancer.
Radium, a common byproduct of uranium refining, gives off radon gas. Radon gas is highly cardinogenic. Most radioactive substances will increase the risk of cancer in a population by 1 case per thousand people. Radon hikes the lifetime risk of lung cancer to 1 in 100. Experts not that 30% of lung cancers in non-smokers in the general population are thought to result from exposure to radon. If there is good news, it is that radium is in the calcium family so it is readily distributed throughout the bone, diluting the amount of energy absorbed through the entire skeleton. But radium can cause bone cancer, as it did in many of Grace Fryer's coworkers in the radium watch-face factory.
Berylium is nonradioactive but extremely hazardous. Stronger than steel and lighter than aluminum, Berylium is useful in bombmaking and aerospace. "There's even a bicycle made of berylium alloy," says Babette Marrone, an expert on chronic berylium disease of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Berylium disease more commonly strikes machinists who work the metal, collecting in the lungs. In some people, berylium deposition is harmless; others have a genetic susceptibility that makes berylium a life-threatening illness. In those cases, immune cells in the lungs encase berylium particles in nodules of scar tissue called granulomas, which impairs breathing. How severe the illness is depends on the individual's sensitivity to berylium. And the effects can emerge 10 to 40 years after exposure, with an average latency of about 12 years. People who are highly sensitive to berylium may sink in a matter of months, suffocating because their lungs no longer function; others might experience mild illness or not get sick at all.
Marrone is attempting to discover ways of testing for berylium sensitivity, as a way of screening workers to minimize their risk. One way would be to identify the genetic trigger that governs berylium sensitivity. "If we can find the genetic trigger, we can steer people away from these jobs," Marrone says. "We have a chance of preventing this from occurring in the workplace ever again.
Flouride compounds form hydroflouric acid when they are inhaled and mix with hydrogen molecules in the lungs. Hydroflouric acid is highly corrosive and can eat away at lung tissue. About 40,000 other chemicals are used in weapons-making, a list far too long to summarize here. Although the effects vary, most of these would damage the liver and kidney.
Heavy metals, used widely in bombmaking, also have a variety of different effects. Mercury damages neurons, bringing on premature dementia. Lead damages nerves and affects a person's ability to learn. Other heavy metals, including uranium, severely damage the kidney.
Jim Phelps Comments:
Unfortunately, the fluoride data is quite truncated, as fluorides damage the thyroid and parathyroid, deposit in the bone, and cause all kinds of immune system problems. Its highly linked to arthritic and asthma. Affects the immune white cells and macrophages. It is a dominate health effect at the gas diffusion plant in Oak Ridge.
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