Richland, Wash. - A 1997 study by scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) drew groundbreaking conclusions about the potential hazards of chemical vapor releases to workers at the Hanford Site. But KING 5 has found that the results of that study were never made public, shared with Hanford workers or members of the federally chartered Hanford Advisory Board.
For the first time, scientists working at the renowned lab in Richland, managed by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, concluded that emissions from underground nuclear waste tanks had the potential to cause cancer and other serious diseases if workers near the vapors weren’t wearing full respiratory protective gear. Historically, workers had been told the worksite was safe because chemical releases were nearly always below OSHA levels.
The PNNL study specifically found that employees working around tank C-103, or downwind from it, on a consistent basis for 25 years had a 1 in 50 chance of developing cancer, compared with a 1 in 10,000 chance as acceptable by OSHA. The chance of developing serious conditions such as reproductive and nervous system diseases was deemed to be exponentially higher.
The scientists said that very little was known about the real health threat posed by chemical vapor releases at the Hanford Site and that more investigation was necessary to ensure worker safety. They stated it was "unclear whether cancer is induced after chronic exposure or perhaps after a single release."
“The risk numbers are way beyond what we understood at the time for tank vapor risk,” said Dr. Tim Takaro, a medical doctor and toxicologist who co-chaired the Hanford Advisory Board’s Health and Safety Committee from 1994 to 2005. “Of course, I can see the Department of Energy would not want to have this publically distributed. The cancer and non-cancer (other diseases) risks to workers from that tank to workers are enormous and unacceptable.”
Workers suffering from chronic illnesses caused by chemical vapor exposures were surprised and angered when alerted to the existence of the PNNL study by KING 5. Lonnie Poteet, a Hanford worker who is suffering debilitating medical problems caused by a 2007 exposure to chemical vapors, said if he’d seen the study he would have insisted on wearing protective gear such as a respirator. In his 12 years at Hanford Poteet said he rarely wore protective gear as he’d been assured the site was safe.
“I’m angry,” said Poteet. “I sure wish I'd have had this. It would make a difference. It really upsets a person to know that they could have done more to protect you. But you're just a number to them and they'll run you through and they'll hire another guy right behind me."
PNNL study dismissed
Why wouldn’t the Department of Energy release an important report written by their own experts? Late Monday a Department of Energy spokesperson sent KING 5 another document to explain. An August 20, 1997, paper authored principally by Melvin W. First, an environmental toxicologist at the Harvard School of Public Health in Massachusetts, blasted the PNNL report. Among the Harvard reviewers' criticisms of the PNNL study:
* ”there are serious errors of concept and process that challenge its value.”
* ”their uncritical acceptance of the underlying data….renders the conclusions of this report of no value.”
* “The report omits many important details.”
* ”(We believe) this report should be withdrawn (due to its) non-relevance and multiple errors.”
First, an emeritus professor at Harvard, concluded that the health and safety procedures in place at that time at Hanford's tank farms "are fully adequate for personnel safety" and urges that the PNNL report "be withdrawn."
Experts consulted by KING 5 said they believe the Energy Department's response to the draft 1997 PNNL study is an example of how data on worker safety and public health can be subjected to multiple analyses until a sought after result is obtained.
“This is not surprising. This happens all of the time in the risk assessment industry, whether it be tobacco, asbestos, or (Hanford) tank vapors. If you don’t like the study you get, you go out and get another one,” said Dr. Takaro.
“The PNNL study raises very significant issues; important concerns that are still problematic today,” said Dr. Steven Gilbert, director and founder of the Institute of Neurotoxicology and Neurological Disorders. “It’s unacceptable, the lack of transparency. This is the way the Department of Energy operates and it kills their credibility.”
Current vapor troubles
Vapor exposures at Hanford are a top issue of concern currently as 28 Hanford tank farm workers received medical attention over a six-week period in March and April of this year after being exposed to chemical vapors. Their symptoms included difficulty breathing, coughing up blood, nose bleeds, a burning lung sensation and headaches. Many of the incidents resulted in temporary evacuations of large parts of the tank farms.
Vapor releases have been happening at Hanford for decades, the result of complex chemical reactions inside the tanks holding millions of gallons of highly radioactive waste. The vapors are allowed to vent to avoid potentially explosive buildups. Filters remove all radiation, but much of the chemical elements escape into the atmosphere where technicians working in close proximity can breathe them in.
Experts told KING 5 that “burying” the PNNL study results was a lost opportunity to consider ways to better protect workers, including those recently exposed.
"It's very upsetting as an occupational medicine physician and public health practitioner that an opportunity to better protect workers at Hanford was missed, apparently," said Takaro.
By accepting the Harvard author's criticisms about the PNNL report, the Energy Department stifled a scientific conversation about the threat of tank waste vapors to Hanford workers. According to toxicology experts consulted by KING 5, the PNNL findings should have been openly discussed, new interpretations and approaches considered, with a resulting clearer picture of the threat. Instead, the review by an emeritus Harvard public health researcher brought a halt to the conversation.
“They absolutely should have put that study out there. It’s just like the tobacco wars, you need that stuff out there for other toxicologists to review,” said Gilbert. “That’s the way it works in the world of science. (The information) could have helped the 30 workers who got sick recently.”
Background on Harvard review
As for First, the lead scientist on the Harvard review, he was a toxicologist and engineer with a history of being a paid expert for the tobacco industry.
In 2003, he wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal entitled “Breathing Other’s Smoke: It’s Not Going to Kill You”. He wrote the threat of secondhand smoke is negligible. “(My colleague’s) finding that exposure to environmental smoke cannot be associated with increased risk of cancer and heart disease comes as no surprise to me. (My research) found the concentrations of tobacco smoke (in restaurants, cocktail lounges, etc) were equivalent to smoking about 0.004 cigarettes an hour while in these facilities. It should be recalled that smoking in public places was normal and prevalent a quarter-century ago,” wrote First. (First died in 2011.)
KING has also found that while First’s report for the Dept. of Energy was written on Harvard School of Public Health letterhead in 1997, First no longer worked there. He had retired from the department in 1985. None of the other professionals associated with the report worked at Harvard either. All were members of the Westinghouse (government contractor at the time) Worker Health & Safety Subpanel of the Tank Advisory Panel.
'We have to solve the vapor issue'
KING 5 reported last month that experts have long urged stronger respiratory protection for workers at Hanford. And the top Energy Department official at Hanford -- Office of River Protection Project Manager Kevin Smith -- said he agrees that vapors are a dangerous threat.
"We know that some vapors are very harmful, some vapors can cause health issues, some vapors can cause death. So the answer is some vapors can do that," Smith said at an April 29 public meeting in Richland.
"I believe we have to solve the vapor issue," Smith also said.
Poteet struggles every day with health problems which the Department of Energy has admitted were caused by his vapor exposure seven years ago. He has mysterious cancer growths on his head, impaired vision and a painful condition called trigeminal neuralgia. That is a degenerative disease that suddenly and repeatedly shoots electric-like bolts of pain through the victim's face, which was evident to a KING 5 reporter and photographer who visited Poteet at his home in Richland.
“I feel the shots of pain every hour, almost every half hour. Sometimes its within minutes of each other all day long,” said Poteet.
He hopes that current management is serious about taking on the vapor issue once and for all, but for him and other sick workers – that effort comes too late.
"They've taken my life and screwed it up. I feel really betrayed, they lied to me," he said. "No one wants to talk about the dirty secret of the killing of Hanford workers."
The citizen group, Hanford Challenge, obtained the PNNL study from a source. That group provided a copy of it to the KING 5 Investigators.
Since this story first aired Tuesday night a representative from the US Dept. of Labor contacted Lonnie Poteet. The claims manager assured Poteet he would help with paper work and other red tape to make sure he got assistance to get his medical bills and other needs attended to.
"Now I may be able to get some relief from the pain," said Poteet. "It's great."