New legislation proposed by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., would save lives of Hanford nuclear reservation workers, according to medical experts and union officials.
A federal program to provide help for workers at risk for a debilitating and incurable lung condition, chronic beryllium disease, has not kept up with medical advances, according to medical experts.
The current federal standards to diagnose beryllium sensitivity, which indicates that workers are at risk of developing chronic beryllium disease, “are outdated and put people at risk,” said Murray during a visit with Hanford workers Wednesday at the pipefitters union Local 598 labor hall in Pasco.
“They have to wait forever to get the care they need and the longer they wait, the worse their outcomes are,” the senator said.
The legislation would allow earlier identification of those at risk to provide monitoring for the earliest treatment possible.
Breathing in vapors or fine particles of beryllium, a lightweight metal, can cause chronic beryllium disease for people with an allergylike sensitivity to the metal. In its advanced stages their lungs develop irreversible scarring and their ability to breathe is diminished.
It is “a very nasty disease,” said Jeff McDaniels, president of the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council. “It is close to asbestosis.”
At Hanford, beryllium was included in an alloy that was machined until 1986 as part of producing caps for the uranium fuel irradiated at Hanford for weapons-grade plutonium production.
Although nuclear fuel has not been produced at the Hanford nuclear reservation since the Cold War ended, workers are still being exposed to fine particles that lurk in the buildings they are preparing for demolition and tearing down as part of environmental cleanup of the 580-square-mile site adjacent to Richland in Eastern Washington.
Not all workers exposed to beryllium develop the lung disease, but those that do first develop beryllium sensitivity. It has no symptoms, but can be detected with a blood test.
New beryllium disease finding
The requirement for diagnosis used by the federal program is outdated, according to medical experts on the rare disease.
The federal program requires a positive blood test, but research at National Jewish Health in Denver shows that three blood tests with borderline results confirm a diagnosis of beryllium sensitization even if there is not a positive blood test, said Dr. Lisa Maier, of National Jewish Health, in a statement.
Murray’s legislation reflects that updated medical and scientific understanding, said Dr. Lee Newman, an expert in the disease and a professor at the University of Colorado.
“To me this is just common sense,” Murray said. “If you are experiencing symptoms of CBD, let’s ensure you are getting access to care and getting it early.”
The proposed legislation would help former as well as current Hanford workers, since the disease may take years to develop after an exposure to beryllium, Murray said.
And it would help future workers as decades of Hanford environmental cleanup remain.
Tina Clouston, a member of Local 598 and the building trades craft safety representative at Hanford, said the stories she hears are heart-breaking.
She described the retirement of one Hanford worker with chronic beryllium disease, saying, “She is not in the backyard chasing grandkids because she can’t. She doesn’t have the lung capacity to do that.”
She travels, but she sees the sights from inside a car or RV because she doesn’t have the ability to walk or take a hike, Clouston said.
Detection allows monitoring to start, which is paid for under the federal Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act. The act also provides full medical coverage and a $150,000 cash payment for workers who develop chronic beryllium disease.
The more that is done to protect current workers, the stronger the message to potential future workers that they will be given the care they need, Murray said.
Her plan is to move her proposed legislation toward approval by inserting it into the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual military funding bill that senators are reluctant to vote against.