Saturday, March 13, 2010

NEWS: Chronic beryllium disease from occupational exposure

From the 2010.03.13 TriCity Herald (Tacoma, Washington): KENNEWICK -- The Hanford Advisory Board is questioning whether the Department of Energy is doing enough to protect Hanford workers from an incurable lung disease caused by exposure to beryllium.

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DOE officials in Washington, D.C., are about to launch a review of the Hanford beryllium protection program because of the concerns of some workers.

But by the time that review is finished, three more cases of chronic beryllium disease could be diagnosed if current trends continue, said board member Mike Korenko at a meeting Thursday of the advisory board in Kennewick.

"How can you not look at that data and have adrenaline flowing?" he asked Doug Shoop, deputy manager of the DOE Hanford Richland Operations Office.

Ten months have passed since the advisory board last recommended that DOE improve its beryllium protection program, and since then three more Hanford cases of chronic beryllium disease have been verified. That brings the total with the disease to 32 and the number of workers determined to be sensitized to beryllium to 95, up from 88.

Workers with an allergy-like sensitivity to beryllium are at risk of developing potentially debilitating and fatal lung disease if exposed to fine particles of the metal. Beryllium was used at Hanford in the production of fuel for reactors, among other uses, and particles remain in the dust in some buildings.

If workers test positive for the sensitivity to the metal, their risk of developing chronic beryllium disease may be reduced if they are not further exposed to the metal.

Today the board will consider sending a letter to DOE highlighting its concerns with the program. It also is expected to issue advice that it discussed Thursday, saying that DOE should arrange an independent review of the beryllium program rather than doing it internally.

If DOE does it itself, "it does not pass the snicker test" for affected workers, said Keith Smith, a board member.

When the board sent recommendations to DOE last spring on its beryllium protection program, DOE replied that it was already doing everything suggested, according to the board.

"Unfortunately, status quo is not adequate" given increasing cases of chronic beryllium disease, according to a draft letter the board will discuss sending to DOE today.

DOE could be using easily available techniques to pinpoint the source of beryllium, the draft letter said. That includes questioning sensitized employees about where they have worked to determine potentially undiscovered sources of beryllium.

Many Hanford workers are reluctant to be tested for beryllium sensitivity, the draft letter said. But DOE has not conducted a study to determine the reason employees are not being tested and to find ways to motivate them to be tested, the draft letter said.

DOE needs to be more aggressive in letting retired workers know they may be at risk of chronic beryllium disease, the draft letter said. Some board members believe that most former workers have not heard of the disease.

The board is hoping that a new prevention program that started being used across the site last month will better protect workers, even if further improvements are needed.

Affected workers and union safety officials were directly involved in developing the new program, so DOE believes it will be accepted well by Hanford workers, Shoop said.

It would provide uniform policies among contractors which would better protect workers such as electricians who may move from project to project. It also offers new training and more controls for beryllium, Shoop said.

Last summer, leaders of the advisory board met with Ines Triay, the DOE assistant secretary for environmental cleanup, and told her they were concerned that the recommendations and commitments from two earlier independent reviews of Hanford's beryllium prevention programs had not been implemented, according to the board's proposed advice.

In some cases workers with beryllium sensitivity may still have done work in buldings suspected of beryllium contamination, Smith said.

Triay agreed to review past recommendations and commitments and separately DOE told a group of workers with chronic beryllium disease or beryllium sensitization that there would be an independent review of the Hanford program, according to some board members.

Those commitments have not been met, according to the proposed advice, although DOE is expected soon to send a team from its Washington, D.C., Office of Health, Safety and Security to Hanford to start planning a review of the program.

"That plan does not meet the definition of independent and is not likely to attain the confidence of the work force," said the proposed advice. Some board members also want workers with beryllium disease to have a say on what experts conduct the review.

The board meeting will continue today at 8:30 a.m. at the Columbia Center Red Lion, 1101 N. Columbia Center Blvd., Kennewick. The beryllium issue is planned to be discussed in the afternoon, but could be heard ahead of schedule.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533;; more Hanford news at