UW News

December 3, 1997

Researchers identify asbestos, beryllium, noise exposure in former nuclear site workers

Many former workers at the Hanford nuclear site in Washington state may be affected by asbestos, beryllium and noise pollution exposure that occurred during their employment.
A federally mandated study of more than 91,000 former Hanford workers has identified several health concerns, raising issues about future health tracking and care for these employees as well as identifying problems that may affect current workers at the site.

“Our findings show a substantial number of workers with health problems that may be associated with their former employment,” said Dr. Scott Barnhart, primary investigator and director of the University of Washington Occupational and Environmental Medicine Program. “These findings support the need for further identification and surveillance of workers exposed to these hazards.”

Barnhart presented the findings on Wednesday, Dec. 3 at the “Health of the Hanford Site: Current Challenges” conference in Richland, Wash.

As part of the study, researchers surveyed 91,525 individuals who worked at Hanford from 1943 to 1997. Researchers estimated the number of workers exposed to certain hazards by reviewing records, worksite location and a job-exposure matrix. Then, they identified workers’ exposure to elements that posed a health hazard and identified situations where interventions such as medical monitoring may provide benefits.

Results of the study found that approximately 31 percent of former workers had potential asbestos exposure, up to 17 percent had potential beryllium (a toxic rate metal) exposure and 39 percent had potential noise exposure.

Further study of a smaller group of workers with available health data found approximately 13 percent to have lung function abnormalities – twice the normal rate – and 11 percent to show evidence of hearing loss. Barnhart notes lung function abnormalities were more common among workers in jobs traditionally associated with asbestos exposure, while hearing loss patterns were associated with noise exposure.

In addition to assessing exposure, researchers identified interventions, such as regular medical monitoring, which may benefit up to 35,000 former workers.

Barnhart notes that results should be interpreted cautiously due to limitations in the study. These include insufficient information about the various job duties performed by workers, their non-occupational-related health activities (such as smoking) and their overall health records. As a result of these initial findings, the U.S. Department of Energy has requested a plan to provide this medical surveillance as a pilot program. In 1998, former workers will be examined for exposure to asbestos, noise and beryllium.

Barnhart notes that an updated assessment of hazards such as ionizing radiation, solvents, heavy metals and welding fumes will be available in 1998. Similar studies are being conducted at other Department of Energy sites around the country.

“One of the principal challenges of this project is finding the workers years after their retirement from Hanford,” Barnhart noted. “This locating process and enrollment into appropriate medical monitoring programs will take several years of intensive effort. However, it is important for these workers who served the country during the cold war to have an appraisal of the potential health effects of their service.”

Additional studies are planned to continue characterizing worker exposure to other hazards such as ionizing radiation, solvents, heavy metals, welding fumes and other respiratory irritants.

Health risks identified at the Hanford site may also be of concern to current workers involved in decontaminating and decommissioning old buildings at Hanford. Two other Hanford research projects are focusing efforts on this population. One, organized by the Consortium for Risk Evaluation with Stakeholder Participation at the UW is considering the same hazards identified for former workers. Another, called the Hanford Occupational Health Project (involving the Department of Energy in Richland, Hanford Environmental Health Foundation, Fluor Daniel Hanford, Tulane University, the UW and others), is charged with assuring proper medical surveillance of current Hanford workers.