Workers illness has been found to be linked to exposure to poisons at a former uranium enrichment plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn., officials announced yesterday.
A four-year study by government-paid doctors linked a variety of illnesses ranging from fatal respiratory ailments to neurological disorders to hazardous materials in the former K-25 plant, where uranium was refined into nuclear weapons fuel from 1943-87.
"This has been an extremely difficult, extremely complex examination," said Dr. James E. Lockey of the University of Cincinnati, one of three doctors hired by the Department of Energy (DOE) to conduct the four year study.
At a public meeting yesterday where the doctors presented there findings, Lockey said he had done work at many industrial sites, but K-25 was the most complex, mostly because of its history.
Fifty-three current and former ill workers from K-25 were examined in the study. Most worked 20 or more years at the DOE installation, and are too ill to work today.
Researchers said only a "substantial" number of the 53 workers showed signs of work-related illness.
In some instances, they noted, medical science does not have enough information to tie the symptoms seen among workers to substances to which they were exposed.
In other cases, workers were unable to show they were exposed to substances that could have caused their problems.
Yet, what was being called the "final report" from the researchers is not final. The doctors said that more study is required.
Their report contained a number of recommendations that should be implemented before they can determine whether additional health problems are linked to K-25.
The doctors also called for an immediate, detailed examination of the water systems from the plant for "potential past and present exposures."
A contaminated drinking water supply could provide a new link for how workers came in contact with poisons that harmed them.
The doctors'' attempts to determine the pathways by which workers were exposed "have haunted us," said Dr. Richard C. Bird Jr. of the JSI Center for Environmental Health Studies in Boston.
He said the study should not be used to draw conclusions about the thousands of people who worked at K-25. But Bird said it does show that other workers who fear their jobs made them sick should seek help, and he recommended DOE pay outside consultants to do the exams because many workers don''t trust the agency.
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has already proposed cash compensation for beryllium workers. Help for other sick workers is pending before Congress.
by Virginia Sutcliffe