Two Hanford workers reported physical problems Monday after inhaling unknown chemical vapors at the nuclear site, bringing to 28 the number of workers who’ve been exposed to potentially harmful vapors since March 19.
The workers were with five other employees at what is known as the C Tank Farm, where underground nuclear storage tanks are located.
One of the workers affected on Monday complained of a “burning lungs” sensation. Both were taken to the Hanford on site medical center.
Three additional employees smelled the vapors, but so far have not chosen to seek medical attention. The remaining two workers smelled no chemicals at all because they were wearing air tanks, similar to what firefighters use, to keep themselves safe. None of the other workers were wearing respiratory protection devices.
Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), the lead contractor at Hanford's tank farms, issued a short statement about Monday's vapor incident: "Two WRPS employees were sent to the site medical provider for evaluation today for potential exposure to chemical vapors in Hanford’s C Farm. Seven workers were in the farm. Tank waste retrieval operations were stopped and the farm was immediately evacuated as a precaution about 1 p.m. Both employees were cleared to return to work late Monday afternoon. Access to C Farm remains restricted at this time."
In most locations at Hanford it is not mandatory, but voluntary, to wear respiratory personal protection devices. In the area where most of the exposures have taken place since March, the A Farm Complex, it is currently mandatory to wear a respirator.
Since the first workers got sick six weeks ago, WRPS has reinstituted a chemical vapor safety team. The company said it is implementing “corrective actions” and has asked for an independent expert review panel to see what more can be done.
“While a number of steps have been taken and improvements made in recent years to address chemical vapors hazards, the latest set of exposures shows that more work needs to be done,” said WRPS President and Project Manager Dave Olson.
Despite those steps, Hanford workers tell KING the company’s response isn’t comprehensive enough to ensure their safety.
“It will probably take three or four more people to get sick before they decide to put all of the farms on respirators. They don’t want to do it because it would be an admission that there’s a real problem,” said one KING source who wanted to remain anonymous.
Several scientific studies have shown that even small exposures to chemical vapors associated with nuclear waste tanks can cause cancer and other conditions such as chronic respiratory disease and brain damage.