UW News

November 2, 1999

Two health screening programs find health problems among some former Hanford workers

RICHLAND, WASH. — Two separate health screening programs have found that former Hanford construction and production workers may have significant health problems due to their work at Hanford. These findings were released today at the “Health of Hanford Site” conference sponsored by the University of Washington.

“Together, we’ve examined 600 workers so far, and we’re finding a high degree of pathology,” says Dr. Timothy Takaro, acting assistant professor of medicine and environmental health in the UW School of Medicine and School of Public Health and Community Medicine. “These surveys found more work-related diseases among Hanford workers than we had anticipated.”

The two studies are pilot projects established pursuant to a law passed by Congress and funded by the Department of Energy to see if workers have experienced significant risk as a result of being employed at DOE facilities. These are the first independent, science-based evaluations of health risks to former workers at Hanford.

The projects include the University of Washington Former Hanford Worker Medical Program, and the Hanford Building Trades Medical Screening Program survey, conducted by The Center to Protect Workers’ Rights, the Washington, D.C., Hospital Center, Duke University, the University of Cincinnati and Zenith Administrators.

Among the findings:
* Chest X-rays of former Hanford production workers showed that nearly half needed follow-up for abnormal findings. Nearly one out of five former workers (18 percent) had diminished lung function. About 5 percent would be expected for a population this average age.
* Seven out of 10 workers had hearing loss. An industrial population of this age would be expected to show about 50 percent of its workers with hearing loss.
* 85 percent of those surveyed reported hearing impairment; the average in the general population is about 22 percent.
* Over 5 percent of those tested had positive results for beryllium sensitization. Beryllium is a metal that was used at Hanford and produces an immunologic disease of the lungs. Between one-third and one-half of the 33 sensitized workers found so far can be expected to develop the disease within five years, Takaro says.
* 45 percent required follow-up for skin lesions, high blood pressure, hearing loss and respiratory disease.
* Roughly seven out of eight building and construction trades workers interviewed say they feel their health has been affected by their years at Hanford.

“The findings of this screening program indicate the importance of having an occupational health medical program for current workers capable of evaluating a worker’s exposure to hazards on the job,” says Roger Briggs, Hanford health studies coordinator and a certified industrial hygienist with the DOE Richland Operations Office.

These projects expect to eventually screen a total of 20,000 former workers with current projected funding, though many more workers are likely to have been exposed and be eligible for medical surveillance.

“The medical findings are confirming the perceptions of workers about health risks on the job at Hanford. These surveys are breaking new ground. In addition to finding an alarming rate of work-related health problems, they are also the first studies to document beryllium risk among workers at Hanford,” says Richard Berglund, president of the Central Washington Building and Construction Trades Council.

In addition to documenting the health needs of former workers, and helping these workers get medical treatment for these needs, the information gathered on the health risks and exposure histories of former workers is being provided to the site so that DOE can assure better health protection for current and future workers.

“These pilot projects have certainly documented the health need on this site,” said Takaro, “and they have demonstrated the need for expanded and ongoing medical monitoring for workers not just at Hanford, but other DOE sites as well. Clearly, we can and should do as much as possible to help workers who have medical needs now. But we can also do even more to protect future workers as they decommission some of the same buildings where the workers in these monitoring programs were originally exposed.”