Most Hanford cleanup workers exposed to hazardous materials: Washington state report

Most Hanford cleanup workers exposed to hazardous materials: Washington state report
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More than half of all current and former workers involved in the Hanford Nuclear Reservation cleanup effort have said they were exposed to hazardous materials, according to a new report from the Washington state government.

The report, the last in a series from the Department of Commerce’s Hanford Healthy Energy Workers Board, found that 57 percent “of all current and former workers reported being in an exposure event,” with 32 percent saying they experienced “long-term exposure to hazardous materials.” 

The 106-page document cited “deep concerns” among current and former workers about “compensation system processes and the healthcare system's ability to meet workers' needs,” and identified “deficiencies in continued engagement with workers after an initial assessment or diagnosis as a common obstacle for the Hanford workforce.” 

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The findings cap eight months of research by a state-commissioned board tasked with making recommendations on addressing the health needs of workers at the Hanford nuclear site.

The 560-square-mile area in Washington was used by the federal government from 1944 to 1987 to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons and missile warheads.

However, the state board noted that during this time, “many highly radioactive byproducts and waste chemicals were dumped directly into the ground or stored in subterranean multi-million-gallon underground storage areas known as tank farms.”

The Department of Energy’s mission at the site shifted from production to cleanup beginning in the late 1980s.

The site has come under increased scrutiny in recent years for its affect on health and the environment, with the Energy Department warning in April that it believed an underground tank at the facility was leaking waste produced by plutonium production.

The Hanford area is considered the most contaminated site of radioactive waste in the U.S.

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The board’s final report on Wednesday offered a look at some of the long-term impacts of nuclear production and waste at the site, including incurable conditions like chronic beryllium disease, which leads to scarring of lung tissue.

The board said that “information sharing could be key to finding cures” to the disease and other chronic conditions developed from exposure to hazardous materials.

Other recommendations included the creation of a Hanford Healthy Energy Workers Center to “serve as a centralized clearinghouse for Hanford-specific health-related information that includes up-to-date scientific knowledge, research on emergent topics, exposure data analysis, medical surveillance data analysis and coordinated intergovernmental efforts for policy and advocacy.”

The board said greater access should be given to specialty and follow-up care, and urged health officials to improve “the quality of care available to Hanford workers both at the Hanford site and in the Tri-Cities area.”