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Poisoned Workers & Poisoned Places: Part II. The Workers

Source: USA Today | September 7th, 2000 | by Peter Eisler
Industry type: Nuclear Industry

Chapter 1. Contamination lingers on

CLEVELAND — 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 — 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. — 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 — 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.

• See also report commissioned by USA Today: Preliminary Partial Dose Estimates from the Processing of Nuclear Materials at Three Plants during the 1940s and 1950s by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.