Originally created 01/26/00

Eight SRS workers test positive for toxic metal



Medical tests of some Savannah River Site workers have turned up eight cases of exposure to a metal blamed for illnesses at other nuclear-weapons sites.

The findings contradict statements from SRS officials, who have said that the metal, beryllium, was not common at the site.

"My sense is that the Energy Department keeps adding buildings where beryllium was used," said Knut Ringen, principal investigator for the Augusta Building Trades Medical Screening Program.

Tests also found evidence of asbestos-related conditions and hearing loss in some current and former workers, the program's doctors said.

Of 147 workers examined for beryllium exposures, eight tested positive for exposure to the metal, Dr. Ringen said. Five of those workers also tested positive a second time, he said.

At that rate, the program could find as many as 1,000 cases of beryllium exposure before its completion, Dr. Ringen said.

So far, none of the eight workers have been diagnosed with berylliosis, a permanent, sometimes fatal lung condition caused by inhaling bits of the metal.

But the workers have beryllium "sensitivity," a negative reaction to the metal similar to an allergy, said Laura Welch, the program's medical director.

All eight workers would qualify for compensation under proposed legislation in Congress, Dr. Ringen said. The legislation is designed to help workers at Energy Department sites who have been exposed to beryllium.

The metal has been linked to dozens of illnesses at other nuclear-weapons sites.

Site officials were presented with the screening program's findings Tuesday. SRS management will work with the program's doctors in an attempt to trace the origins of the exposures, a site spokeswoman said.

"With any information that the screening program needs, we're definitely going to assist," said Susie Grant, a spokeswoman for Westinghouse Savannah River Co., the site's main contractor. "We're very interested in the results of the study of our workers.

"That's very key to us, and we're going to help in any way we can."

A recent Westinghouse review of site records and interviews with employees who might have worked with beryllium revealed no cases of health problems, Ms. Grant said.

It is fairly easy to trace the exposures to SRS work, because beryllium was used almost exclusively at Energy Department sites, doctors said.

But workers with asbestos symptoms might have been exposed at other jobs, since the fiber was used widely in construction, Dr. Welch said. Of 150 workers examined for asbestos-related diseases, 25 percent, or about 37 employees, tested positive, she said.

The site has had a screening program for asbestos exposure since 1979, Ms. Grant said. SRS doctors have found some cases of asbestosis, a scarring of the lungs caused by inhalation of the fiber, she said.

Site doctors could not provide an exact number of asbestosis cases found, she said.

Nearly all of 156 workers screened for hearing loss tested positive, doctors said.

The program has found almost no exposures to radioactive materials or to solvents, both of which were prevalent in SRS work. But the screening program is suited to discover only the most severe of such cases, Dr. Welch said.

"Unfortunately, we can't really screen for radiation diseases," she said. "Many of the workers come through because they want to know if they've had a health effect from radiation, and we have to tell them that we can't tell them."

The screening program is open to current and former construction and maintenance workers at SRS. Since screenings began last year, about 230 workers have had medical exams.

About 600 workers have been interviewed about their work histories at SRS and elsewhere, the first step in the program's screening process.

Its administrators said they expect to screen 1,600 workers by September and hope to examine 19,000 before the program closes in coming years. An estimated 37,250 workers are eligible for the program.

Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409.