Gov't: No evidence Hanford workers exposed to chemical vapors this year



Posted on July 9, 2014 at 7:33 PM

Updated Thursday, Jul 10 at 12:03 PM

RICHLAND, Wash. - About 12,000 air samples taken on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation this year after more than three dozen workers reported being sickened by chemical vapors have failed to find a cause for the problem, Hanford officials said Wednesday.

But Hanford officials said that doesn't mean that workers aren't getting sick.

"Our workers are not exposed to vapors, but they are having symptoms," said Tom Fletcher of the U.S. Department of Energy, which manages Hanford. "The question is: 'Why?' "

"This isn't something we are taking lightly," Fletcher said.

Related: Watch KING 5's series: The human toll of Hanford's dirty secrets

None of the 12,000 air samples taken this year showed chemical levels above occupational-exposure limits, Fletcher said. In fact, more than 50,000 air samples dating back to 2007 found no chemical exposure above the allowable limits, he said.

Hanford officials are hoping an investigation being conducted by the Savannah River National Laboratory might shed light on what is causing the illnesses. A draft of that report is due by October.

Hanford for more than four decades made plutonium for nuclear weapons, and it now contains the nation's greatest volume of nuclear waste. Much of the waste is stored in 177 giant underground storage tanks. It is workers at those tanks who are reporting smelling chemical vapors and then falling ill.

This year, 38 workers have sought treatment after reporting exposure to chemical vapors. Some of the workers reported irritation in their eyes, nose or throat, or a metallic taste in their mouth, Hanford officials said during a media briefing on Wednesday.

Some workers continue to report physical effects from the incidents, including breathing problems, fatigue, headaches and memory loss. But all 38 workers were checked by the on-site medical clinic and cleared to return to work, Hanford officials said.

Fletcher demonstrated safety precautions taken by Hanford tank workers, and he showed reporters machines that can detect chemicals in the air.

Bob Wilkinson, an environmental safety manager for contractor Washington River Protection Solutions, said the lack of evidence doesn't mean that workers are not genuinely becoming sick.

"There may be something out there we are not aware of," Wilkinson said. "I do not believe any folks have done false reporting or are psychosomatic. I feel they are real."

Tom Carpenter of the watchdog group Hanford Challenge noted Wednesday that  equipment used at the tank farms cannot detect every dangerous chemical in real time, including dimethylmercury (a known neurotoxin) and nitrosodimethylamine, a known carcinogen.

The 177 tanks contain a toxic stew of chemical and radioactive wastes, with no two tanks storing the exact same contents. Hanford workers are busy transferring the contents of leaking, older single-walled tanks into newer double-walled tanks.

Irritation of the throat is the most commonly reported symptom, Wilkinson said.

Workers have reported being exposed to chemical vapors at Hanford for decades. Expert reports produced in the early 1990s warned that improved worker protection practices were needed to avoid vapor exposures. Despite these recommendations, use of respirators remains voluntary on much of the site. On Wednesday, Hanford managers demonstrated how protective equipment can hinder workers from performing their jobs while downplaying the threat posed by chemical vapors.

Hanford covers 586 square miles near Richland, Washington, about 200 miles southeast of Seattle. It was created during the Manhattan Project in World War II to make plutonium for nuclear weapons. That work ended in the 1980s, and the site is now engaged in a $2 billion-a-year cleanup of the resulting wastes.

-- AP reporter Nicholas K. Geranios with contributions from KING 5's Gary Chittim and Russ Walker.