Radiation research on humans staged in Richland

RICHLAND — The rows of freezers in a new metal building near the Richland airport hold tissue samples from the women who used radioactive radium in the 1920s to paint the glow-in-the dark dials of watches and clocks.

With them are organs waiting to be processed and tissue samples from their more recent counterparts -- former DOE nuclear weapons workers, including those at Hanford, who were exposed to radioactivity on the job and later volunteered to donate their bodies to science when they died.

Shelves hold boxes filled with organ samples dissolved in acid and preserved for future research. Other boxes hold bones, potentially contaminated, that have been turned to ash.

It's the nation's collection of physical evidence amassed to provide clues to how exposure to actinides such as plutonium and uranium affect the human body -- the goal of the U.S. Transuranium and Uranium Registries.

The program is operated by the Washington State University College of Pharmacy and paid for with grants from the Department of Energy. Programs at different DOE sites were consolidated in Washington in 1992, but more recently all of the nation's archives of data and samples -- both recent and decades old -- have been consolidated in Richland.

It's the only program in the world that tracks large amounts of data obtained from studying material collected at autopsies with medical and exposure information to learn more about the affects of radioactivity on the human body, said Anthony James, the just-retired director of the registries.

The registries evaluate the causes of death and life expectancy of former nuclear workers. The program looks for evidence of how the body handles the radioactivity over the decades the worker may live after being exposed, evaluating tissue, bones and organs.

The data can be compared to the models that scientists have developed to predict what happens when humans are exposed to radioactivity to assess their accuracy. Information also can be used to gauge the effectiveness of treatment, particularly chelation treatments to remove radioactivity from an exposed person, finding the optimum regimen that allows the removal of the most radioactive material without undue harm to the body.

While the nuclear weapons or other industries are unlikely to again see the level of exposure received by workers in the earlier years of the nation's nuclear weapons program, the information on treatment could be useful if people are exposed to radioactivity from terrorist-set dirty bombs or other incidents, James said.

Body, organ donations

Contributions of whole bodies or organs are made by workers and their families at nuclear weapons sites across the United States and more recently from uranium milling and mining workers. Each former worker has a documented exposure to high levels of radioactive materials such as plutonium, uranium, americium and thorium.

The donations come from people like JB Deatherage, a longtime sheet metal worker at Hanford, who died in March at the age of 91. His family wrote in his obituary that he announced on Father's Day that he was donating his body to the registries, confident that the examination of his numerous exposures to radiation over the years "might help some young boys getting into the nuclear industry be safer than I ever was."

Most donations are anonymous and names, including Deatherage's, are not attached to the specific data that are collected and made available for research.

But the first whole-body donation came from one of the only two workers who agreed to have his name made public along with his work history, medical information and autopsy results.

The nation had begun to look at the effects of radiation through the National Plutonium Registry, the predecessor of today's registries, in 1968, the height of the Cold War. "There had been a lot of animal experiments, but very little direct human experience," James said.

Stuart E. Gunn, the first whole-body donor, died in 1979. He had been exposed as a young graduate student at Berkeley University in the 1950s who took few precautions as he worked with americium. He died at the age of 49 of melanoma, a skin cancer that spread within his body.

Not only were data collected from half the donated skeleton, but much of the other half of the donated skeleton was saved. The bones from one of his legs have been encased in plastic as a "phantom" leg used to calibrate DOE's whole-body counters, the systems used to measure radioactivity within the human body.

The other whole-body donor who agreed to have his information made public was Harold McCluskey. He's known at Hanford as the Atomic Man, after surviving what's been called Hanford's worst radiological accident.

An explosion at the Plutonium Finishing Plant in 1976 sprayed him with americium, leaving it embedded in his skin. He immediately received a chelating agent that grabbed onto americium in his blood and allowed the isotope to be excreted in his urine. The chelation therapy was continued at least occasionally for years.

He died of congestive heart failure 11 years after the explosion at 75.

His was a particularly valuable donation because of the wealth of fluid samples saved and information available on him, James said.

The most recent donation was received in September from a man exposed in 1944 during an explosion at the Philadelphia Navy yard of the pilot plant for the gaseous diffusion process developed for the Oak Ridge nuclear site. He lived until his 90s and his death did not appear to be related to the explosion.

His was the 38th whole body donation received at the registries. More common are partial body donations that can include organs, bones and skin from wound sites, depending on whether exposure was from a puncture wound or inhalation. The registry has received 291 of those donations.

"We can get a lot of information from a partial body -- almost as much as from a whole body," James said.

New lab in Richland

The new 6,000-square-foot laboratory in Richland, which was furnished by WSU, includes a full autopsy room. But much of the work is done in the radiochemistry lab.

"It's not just the concentration of radioactivity that's important, but its distribution within the organ," said Sergei Tomachev, who took over as director of the registries when James retired at the end of September. Because of budget cuts the staff has shrunk from 12 employees to five.

Organs are dissolved for analysis and the bottles of solution are boxed and stored at the lab as a resource for scientists who want to do further analysis.

Bones are cut into sections, so the distribution of radioactivity can be studied. The bones are first turned to ash in furnaces at the lab to remove organics and then dissolved in acid.

In the counting room, an alphaspectrometry system is used to detect alpha particles and measure energy of samples spread in thin layers on stainless steel discs.

The data and research

The focus of the registries now is to continue to accept donations of bodies and organs from the current 94 people who have pledged their bodies or organs to the program at their death and keep up with analysis. They must reregister every five years.

Work also is under way to make records more accessible to researchers, including by posting information on cases on the internet and keeping tissue samples that can be reanalyzed for new information or with improved technologies.

But there has been some research conducted on the data collected. It's found no appreciable difference in the causes of death of those who donate to the registries and the rest of the United States population.

Liver and bone cancer are key concerns because of the way actinides may concentrate in the body, but just five liver cancers have been found and just one bone cancer that appears linked to radioactivity.

Lung cancers are far more common, but they do not seem to increase as the exposure to actinides increases. Most of the workers with lung cancer were smokers.

However, there does appear to be a possibly greater than expected incidence of mesothelioma, a rare cancer linked to exposure to asbestos. Of the 113 cancer deaths, eight were primarily cases of mesothelioma, James said.

There also has been some work to begin looking at beryllium exposure. Beryllium, a metal, can cause an incurable lung disease in people with a genetic susceptibility to an allergy-like reaction to it.

Using advanced analytical techniques, beryllium has been found in the archived tissue of workers who never reported working with it, James said. Just one of the deaths among workers who have donated to the registries was linked to beryllium exposure.

Although James has retired from the registry to work as a consultant, he plans to continue to be involved. His task will be to find agencies and institutions interested in using the resources of the registries to interpret and conduct research with the vast data and the samples collected at the registries.