Hanford workers new cancer package OK'd

By Annette Cary, Herald staff writerDecember 17, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The federal secretary of Health and Human Services has agreed to expand automatic compensation of $150,000 to more Hanford workers who may have developed cancer because of exposure to radiation.

If Congress does not object, the decision by Secretary Kathleen Sebelius takes effect Jan. 10. The action was recommended in October by a federal advisory board.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, will review 340 pending claims of former Hanford workers, some filed by their survivors. The claims are for workers who had cancers covered under the automatic compensation program and who worked at Hanford during the years the new expanded rules would cover.

Those pending claims are in addition to hundreds of past claims that have been denied but would be reviewed by the Department of Labor to see if they now qualify for compensation under the eased rules. The new rules also could help some middle-aged Hanford workers and recent retirees who yet may develop cancer.

The rules would be eased by the formation of a new special exposure cohort for the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program. The program calls for NIOSH to estimate the amount of radiation exposure each ill worker received and determine whether there was at least a 50 percent chance of causing their cancer.

But special exposure cohorts may be named if Sebelius believes radiation exposure cannot be reliably estimated for groups of workers. Then workers are automatically compensated if they develop any of a broad range of primary cancers or certain secondary cancers.

Under the new special exposure cohort, automatic $150,000 compensation and medical coverage would be extended to any Hanford worker who was employed for at least 250 days from Oct. 1, 1943, through June 30, 1972. That's more inclusive than previous decisions to ease rules only for workers assigned to specific Hanford areas for certain of those years.

A NIOSH report concluded that from late 1943 through mid-1972, adequate monitoring was not done to determine workers' exposure to three radioactive isotopes -- purified polonium, thorium and neptunium -- used in special programs during those years.

Polonium 210 was generated in Hanford reactors starting during World War II through the activation of bismuth metal. Workers may have called it "postum." Polonium provides a catalyst for the reaction that detonates the plutonium in a nuclear weapon.

Thorium was used at Hanford to help control nuclear reactions and also was used in two campaigns to produce uranium 233 for a proposed new type of nuclear weapon.

Neptunium 237 was irradiated at Hanford to produce plutonium 238, which is used in the nation's space program to provide power on deep space flights.

Although radiological work was only done in certain areas at Hanford, it became apparent that the Department of Energy could not identify which workers went into certain areas at least periodically, said Samuel Glover, a health physicist for NIOSH.

The expansion of automatic payments should help employees, such as security guards and craft workers, who have had trouble showing where their daily work took them.

Three previous special exposure cohorts cover Hanford workers in certain areas until shortly after World War II, in the 300 Area just north of Richland from September 1946-61 and in the 200 Area in central Hanford from 1949-68.

Congress is not expected to object to the special exposure cohort, allowing the Department of Labor to proceed to make rules to determine which areas are considered part of Hanford. At issue could be locations such as the Federal Building in downtown Richland, where workers were not exposed to radiation related to Hanford work.

But there is concern that workers based at the Federal Building also might have been required to perform some of their job duties at areas of Hanford where they could have been exposed to workplace radiation.

"I am hopeful that this special exposure cohort will ease the path to compensation for many workers and their families. Our country owes a great debt to these individuals for winning the peace and protecting our nation," Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said in a statement.

The special exposure cohorts cover cancers linked to radiation through previous medical research. Cancers that qualify, with some restrictions, include bone cancer, renal cancer, some leukemias, some lung cancers, multiple myeloma, some lymphomas and primary cancer of the bile ducts, brain, breast, colon, esophagus, gall bladder, ovary, pancreas, pharynx, salivary gland, small intestine, stomach, thyroid, urinary bladder and liver.

Some secondary cancers -- those that spread from primary cancers such as prostate cancer -- also are covered. They include lung, bone and kidney cancer.

Claimants should make sure their files are up to date if they have been diagnosed with additional cancers since they filed their initial claim, said Shannon Bradford, spokeswoman for NIOSH.

To date the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program has paid $503 million to ill workers at Hanford and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory or their survivors. Payments include compensation and medical reimbursement.

For information on applying for the compensation program or to update a claim file with additional cancers, call the Hanford Resource Center at 946-3333 or 888-654-0014.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; more Hanford news at hanfordnews.com.

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