When Reviewing Records Gets Really Dangerous

By David Michaels

Sometimes reviewing records of past exposures to toxic materials can be pretty dangerous itself. AP carried the story:

Records buried in a landfill used for radioactive waste may be dug up to determine whether cancer-stricken workers from a defunct nuclear-weapons plant qualify for compensation, a federal official said.

At least a dozen pallets of cardboard boxes, six 55-gallon drums and 11 safes containing classified records from the Mound weapons plant in Miamisburg, Ohio, were buried in underground shafts of the landfill at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico in 2005.

This isn’t the first time this has happened, of course. From 1998-2001, I served as Assistant Secretary for Environment, Safety and Health for the US Department of Energy (DOE). Following reports that plutonium contamination had been covered up at the uranium enrichment plant in Paducah, Kentucky, I sent teams of investigators to all the enrichment plants to look at past safety and health practices. At the Paducah facility, the investigators had to don radiation protection suits to pull records out of contaminated barrels.

Digging up contaminated records is just one more way we are paying for the mistakes of the past. For years, the managers of the US nuclear weapons complex (first the Atomic Energy Agency, then DOE) refused to take precautions necessary to protect the health of workers, then fought compensation claims when these workers got sick.

In late 2000, Congress passed the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act (with the awful acronym EEOICPA), which provides cash payments and medical cost reimbursement to nuclear weapons plants workers who developed cancer or other diseases following exposure to radiation or toxic chemicals.

In the five years since the program’s inception, EEOICPA has awarded $2.5 billion to workers and their families. The contaminated records will be used by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to reconstruct the radiation doses of claimants who believe their cancers are work related.

David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.

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