Originally created 05/11/00

Screening shows lungs damaged by lithium



After 47 years, former Savannah River Site worker Elton J. Bush finally knows what destroyed his lungs.

A free medical screening, provided by a federally funded program for SRS construction workers, found that Mr. Bush's ailment is consistent with exposure to lithium. The alkaline, volatile metal once was used in reactors at the federal nuclear-weapons site.

Mr. Bush was the first person examined by the Augusta Building Trades Medical Screening Program. Because of his screening's results, Mr. Bush said he believes his condition, bronchiectasis, is a result of exposure to burning lithium at SRS during the summer of 1953.

On April 28, he and his wife agreed to a monetary workers' compensation settlement with an insurance carrier representing the site's contractors. The settlement, which the Bushes would not disclose publicly, will help pay for years of ambulance rides and hospital visits, they said.

"It's a relief knowing what caused it," Mr. Bush said during an interview from his home in Milton, Fla. "I'm glad this compensation thing went through. It proved a point that people at the plant and other plants did get injured, and they need some recognition for it."

The case is a landmark for the Augusta Building Trades Medical Screening Program, said its office manager, Charles Jernigan.

"I think it's a milestone for us, to get the first person through and get the whole thing settled and find out what the problem was," Mr. Jernigan said. "It proves to us that the process works."

The program has found no one else whose ailments are consistent with exposures to lithium, said its medical director, Dr. Laura Welch.

The site does not have records of other exposures to lithium and traditionally has not performed medical tests for such exposures, said Will Callicott, a spokesman for Westinghouse Savannah River Co. Westinghouse operates SRS for the Department of Energy.

Mr. Callicott said he could offer little comment about Mr. Bush's case because it predates Westinghouse's tenure at SRS.

Mr. Bush's wife, Marie, said the couple long has suspected his illness resulted from his work at the site. He was employed at SRS from 1952 to 1956.

In the summer of 1953, Mr. Bush was exposed to fumes from a burning metal, Mrs. Bush said. Within a year, he developed chronic lung problems that worsened over time.

"In the 1970s, it got progressively worse. In the 1980s, it got worse, and in the 1990s, it's been terrible," Mrs. Bush said.

The illness causes Mr. Bush's airways to be stretched beyond normal. He cannot work and relies on an oxygen bottle 24 hours a day.

The Bushes said they did not suspect lithium as the illness's cause until after Mr. Bush's participation in the screening program. A study revealed that the metal was used near areas where Mr. Bush worked, Dr. Welch said.

"We can't really reconstruct what happened to Mr. Bush," Dr. Welch said. "In tracing the history of the buildings, it looked like lithium because they did machine lithium.

"The fumes have a very basic pH and it can be very irritating to the lungs."

The screening program continues to examine current and former site workers. So far, the project has reached about 1,200 former workers, Mr. Jernigan said.

The program's staff has interviewed 770 workers about their work histories at the site, he said. About 450 people have received free medical exams.

Its administrators 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.

To be eligible, workers must have worked for at least 5,000 hours at the site or have had significant exposure to asbestos, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, noise, radiation, silica, solvents or tritium.

Workers who believe they have health problems stemming from SRS work also are eligible to participate.

Employees first are interviewed about their work histories, program administrators said. If the interview indicates a health exam is necessary, it is performed at no charge.

Workers interested in participating should call (800) 866-9663.

Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409.