Study to look at Hanford risk factors for beryllium disease

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldNovember 5, 2012 

Researchers are hoping to find out more about the risk factors for beryllium disease at Hanford in a new study being launched this week.

National Jewish Health in Denver is conducting the epidemiological study to learn more about chronic beryllium disease at Hanford and also beryllium sensitization, which can lead to development of the disease.

Chronic beryllium disease, which damages the lungs, is caused by breathing in fine particles of beryllium, a metal used at Hanford and other DOE weapons sites. There is no cure, but treatment can slow the progression of the disease.

There have been some previous studies of beryllium disease at Hanford, but this will be the first to extensively study where affected employees worked and what they did, said Mike Van Dyke, senior industrial hygienist at National Jewish Health, a nonprofit medical and research institute.

Results should help the Department of Energy better protect Hanford workers from beryllium exposure and help guide medical surveillance of current and former workers at risk of the disease.

The study is seeking at least 100 volunteers, including current and former workers at Hanford and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, who have chronic beryllium disease or have had a positive blood test for beryllium sensitization. Information from those workers will be compared with about 200 workers without the disease or sensitization, who will serve as a control group.

"The more who participate, the more we can confidently say about risk factors," Van Dyke said.

Hanford officials know of 33 Hanford workers with the disease, about half of them still current workers. But Van Dyke believes additional former workers also have the disease. Free screening for former building trades workers is available by calling 783-6830 and for former production workers by calling 866-812-6703.

Hanford officials also know about 125 Hanford workers, around two-thirds of them current workers, who have been diagnosed as sensitized to beryllium, which puts them at risk of developing chronic beryllium disease.

The diagnosis is done through a blood test that shows the immune system recognizes beryllium from a past exposure to it.

Some people are genetically susceptible to the allergy-like reaction that leads to the lung disease, but other people with high exposure to beryllium can develop the disease even if they lack the genetic marker that has been linked to a reaction to beryllium, Van Dyke said.

At Hanford, some workers were exposed to beryllium when they machined the caps on fuel for reactors that produced plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program. The fuel caps were mostly zirconium with some beryllium.

Workers also may have been exposed when tools made with beryllium, which does not spark, were modified. That was done for some work at the Hanford tank farms, Van Dyke said.

Workers need not have worked with the metal to be sensitized or develop the disease, however. They may have breathed in fine particles of beryllium, including in ventilation systems, that remained in dust long after beryllium was machined.

A similar study at DOE's former Rocky Flats, Colo., site found risk among workers who machined pure beryllium for the outer housing of weapons, trade workers who were nearby during the machining and those who worked with the ventilation system.

Most Hanford workers who are sensitized to beryllium are sent to National Jewish Health, which is a national leader in beryllium disease work and also has been rated the top respiratory hospital in the nation by U.S. News and World Report.

It appears that Hanford workers sensitized to beryllium develop chronic beryllium disease at a lower rate than Rocky Flats workers, Van Dyke said. Although there is no study to back up the observation, the Hanford study may provide some information to support the hypothesis that exposed Hanford workers are at less risk than Rocky Flats workers who had higher exposure to beryllium.

Researchers also are interested in seeing what the data can show about sarcoidosis and are asking current and former workers with that diagnosis also to volunteer for the study. There may be a higher rate of that disease among Hanford workers, but data is needed to see if that is true and the cause.

Chronic beryllium disease may be misdiagnosed as sarcoidosis, or there could be some other risk factor for sarcoidosis at Hanford, Van Dyke said.

The Department of Energy has hired National Jewish Health to conduct the study, which was recommended by the DOE Hanford Corrective Action Plan in 2010 to better protect Hanford workers from exposure to beryllium.

Although Hanford-specific, the study also will add to the medical community's body of knowledge about chronic beryllium disease, Van Dyke said. Hanford has a different exposure profile than other sites more commonly studied, with Hanford workers likely exposed to smaller amounts of beryllium, he said.

More information about the study will be provided at a public meeting at 8 a.m. and repeated at 4 p.m. Wednesday at the administration building at the HAMMER training center, 2890 Horn Rapids Road, Richland.

Workers or former workers at Hanford or PNNL may call Gina Mondello at 800-423-8891, Ext. 1679, to volunteer for the study. Current Hanford workers may participate during work time.

No additional medical testing will be needed for volunteers for the study. Instead, they will fill out a questionnaire and meet with a National Jewish Health representative for an interview about where they worked and what work they did. Participation is expected to take about two hours.

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