Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Clear Night 57° Clear
News >  Washington

‘Very nasty disease’: Sen. Murray has plan to save lives of Hanford nuclear workers

Aug. 25, 2022 Updated Thu., Aug. 25, 2022 at 9:04 p.m.

By Annette Cary Tri-City Herald

RICHLAND – New legislation proposed by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., would save lives of Hanford nuclear reservation workers, according to medical experts and union officials.

A federal program to provide help for workers who are at risk for developing a debilitating and incurable lung condition, chronic beryllium disease, has not kept up with medical advances, according to medical experts.

The federal standards to diagnose beryllium sensitivity, which indicates that workers are at risk of developing chronic beryllium disease, “are outdated and put people at risk,” said Murray during a visit with Hanford workers Wednesday at the pipefitters union Local 598 labor hall in Pasco.

“They have to wait forever to get the care they need and the longer they wait, the worse their outcomes are,” the senator said.

The legislation she is proposing would allow earlier identification of those at risk to provide monitoring for the earliest treatment possible.

Breathing in vapors or fine particles of beryllium, a light-weight metal, can cause chronic beryllium disease for people with an allergy-like sensitivity to the metal. In its advanced stages, lungs develop irreversible scarring and ability to breathe is diminished.

It is “a very nasty disease,” said Jeff McDaniels, president of the Hanford Atomic Trades Council. “It is close to asbestosis.”

Tina Clouston, a member of Local 598 and the building trades craft safety representative at Hanford, said the stories she hears are heart-breaking.

She described the retirement of one Hanford worker with chronic beryllium disease, saying, “She is not in the backyard chasing grandkids because she can’t. She doesn’t have the lung capacity to do that.”

She travels, but she sees the sights from inside a car or RV because she doesn’t have the lung capacity to walk or take a hike, Clouston said.

At Hanford beryllium was included in an alloy that was machined until 1986 as part of producing caps for the uranium fuel irradiated at Hanford for weapons plutonium production.

Although nuclear fuel has not been produced at the Hanford nuclear reservation since the Cold War ended, workers are still being exposed to fine particles that lurk in the buildings they are preparing for demolition and tearing down as part of environmental cleanup of the 580-square-mile site adjacent to Richland.

Not all workers exposed to beryllium develop the lung disease, but those that do first develop beryllium sensitivity. It has no symptoms, but can be detected with a blood test.

Detection allows monitoring to start, which is paid for under the federal Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act. The act provides full medical coverage and a $150,000 cash payment for workers who develop chronic beryllium disease.

New beryllium finding

The requirement for diagnosis used by the federal program is outdated, according to medical experts on the rare disease.

The federal program requires a positive blood test, but research at National Jewish Health in Denver, Colorado, shows that three blood tests with borderline results confirm a diagnosis of beryllium sensitization even if there is not a positive blood test, said Dr. Lisa Maier, of National Jewish Health, in a statement.

Murray’s new legislation reflects that updated medical and scientific understanding, said Dr. Lee Newman, an expert in the disease and a professor at the University of Colorado.

“To me this is just common sense,” Murray said. “If you are experiencing symptoms of CBD, let’s ensure you are getting access to care and getting it early.”

The proposed legislation will help former as well as current Hanford workers, since disease may take years to develop after an exposure to beryllium, Murray said.

And it will also help future workers as decades of Hanford environmental cleanup remain.

The more that is done to protect current workers, the stronger the message that is sent to potential future workers that they will be given the care they need, Murray said.

Her plan is to move her proposed legislation toward approval by inserting it into the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual military funding bill that senators are reluctant to vote against.

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox

Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.