Hanford workers before 1986 most likely to have beryllium disease

Dr. Lisa Maier shows photos of Hanford work that could have exposed workers to beryllium at a public presentation Monday night at the Richland library.
Dr. Lisa Maier shows photos of Hanford work that could have exposed workers to beryllium at a public presentation Monday night at the Richland library. Tri-City Herald

Hanford workers most likely to have chronic beryllium disease worked at the nuclear reservation when beryllium was still being used in fuel rods, a practice that stopped in 1986, according to a new study.

Results of the epidemiological study conducted by National Jewish Health in Denver, a leader in respiratory disease, were released at a public meeting attended by about 50 people Monday night in Richland. More public meetings are scheduled Sept. 22.

The study looked at Hanford cases of chronic beryllium disease, a lung ailment that can develop in people who breathe in fine particles of the metal beryllium and have a genetic sensitivity to it.

It also looked at beryllium sensitization, a diagnosis made when a blood test shows that the immune system has an allergy-like response to beryllium. Beryllium sensitization may progress to chronic beryllium disease.

Workers or former workers with chronic beryllium disease typically spent more years in Hanford buildings believed to have beryllium contamination. They also rated higher when factors were considered such as time performing tasks associated with beryllium contamination or tasks that generated dust that may have been contaminated with beryllium.

Those hired after 1986, when an alloy containing beryllium was no longer used in cladding for part of the fuel rod, likely were exposed through contamination that remained at Hanford, the study concluded.

Areas of potential exposure included buildings in the 300 Area just north of Richland where fuel rods were produced, buildings at the N Reactor where the fuel was used, and buildings where the irradiated fuel was processed, including the Plutonium Finishing Plant and K Basins.

Workers could also be exposed as those buildings were decommissioned and demolished and in shops where tools that contained beryllium, which does not spark, were modified.

The percentage of workers with beryllium sensitization that progressed to chronic beryllium disease — about 3 percent — was lower at Hanford than expected, based on comparisons with other workforces, researchers said. That compares to 8.1 percent found in an unrelated study.

Based on reports from medical contractors, the percentage of workers with chronic beryllium disease among those with the sensitization at Hanford is about 20 percent, while 40 percent is more usual in other workplaces, researchers said.

In other good news, the progression of chronic beryllium disease among the Hanford workers studied appeared to be minimal. Most, but not all, cases were in the very early stages.

Symptoms of chronic beryllium disease may include a dry cough, night sweats, feeling tired and shortness of breath, which is sometimes severe.

The study also looked at sarcoidosis, which has some similar symptoms to chronic beryllium disease, but determined that it appeared to be caused by different workplace risks. Further study of sarcoidosis is needed, including examining possible exposure to zirconium and aluminum, said researcher Peggy Mroz.

Researchers recommended that samples of dust and air continue to be collected to check for beryllium contamination at Hanford. Workers diagnosed with chronic beryllium disease or beryllium sensitization should not do work that would expose them to more beryllium.

Diagnosed workers should continue regular medical follow-up to detect progression of the disease, researchers said.

They also recommended that Hanford and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory programs work closely with workers to reduce stress related to diagnosis, such as the stress of possible job changes.

Further genetic studies also would be helpful, researchers said.

For the epidemiological study just concluded, almost 250 current and former workers at Hanford and PNNL were recruited and 221 were found to be eligible and completed the study. They provided information about their work history, their health and their possible exposure to the metal beryllium.

The study is the first to look extensively at where affected employees worked and what they did at Hanford, said researchers when they were recruiting volunteers at Hanford and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for the study in late 2012.

Results could 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, researchers said then.

The Department of Energy 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.

Two more presentations are planned at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Sept. 22 in Room 40 of the Health and Safety Building at the HAMMER training center, 2890 Horn Rapids Road, near Richland.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews