More Hanford workers exposed to suspected toxic vapors

Susannah Frame reports.

Six Hanford workers were taken to medical clinics Wednesday morning today after getting exposed to suspected, unknown chemical toxins on the job.

These are the first Hanford workers to get exposed to suspected chemical toxins since August, when tougher, temporary safety measures were put in place via an agreement between Hanford officials and the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council.

Nine employees smelled an “unusual odor” consistent with the smell of ammonia just before 9 a.m. outside of the AX Farm. Six of the nine were taken to two different medical clinics. According to the government contractor Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), four of the six experienced symptoms. The symptoms include headache and nausea.

Wednesday’s incident brings the total number of suspected chemical vapor victims to 67 people since April 28 - a record number in an eight month time span. The six workers who sought medical attention Wednesday were WRPS sub-contractors with the company American Electric.

The potential chemical exposures prompted an evacuation of between 20 and 30 workers, according to KING 5 sources. This comes just a day after a national audience learned about Hanford’s ongoing vapor problem. On Tuesday morning NBC’s Today Show broadcast a seven minute report exposing what the KING 5 Investigators have been reporting on for two years: the chemical hazards at Hanford and the government’s attempts to deny the problem exists.

For years scientists have found a link between exposure to chemical vapors and adverse health effects, including occupational asthma, nerve damage, toxic encephalopathy (dementia), and lung damage. The US Department of Energy, which runs Hanford, and its contractor WRPS deny proof exists to show a connection between vapors and serious illnesses. Both are currently under extreme scrutiny about the lack of protection for workers as more media bring the issue to light and as a lawsuit gets closer to trial.

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, the citizen group Hanford Challenge and Local 598 union are suing the Dept. of Energy and WRPS for allegedly knowing about the chemical hazards to people for years, yet not doing enough to protect the workforce from them.  Hanford officials are putting up a vigorous fight against implementing enhanced safety measures called for in the legal actions. Trial is set to get underway in September.

One of the demands by the plaintiffs is to expand zones where it would be mandatory for workers to don supplied air tanks for full respiratory protection. Wednesday’s incident happened near a tent where workers change clothing. Currently respiratory protection is not required in this area.

WRPS released the following statement about Wednesday’s event:

"Six Hanford workers—four expressing symptoms—underwent precautionary medical evaluation and have been released to work after reporting odors this morning outside the AX Tank Farm. Three others also reported odors but declined medical evaluation.

The employees were part of a group of workers suiting up for various work projects at AX Farm. They were suiting up in a dressing facility outside the tank farm that does not require use of a supplied-air respirator. The workers in the dressing facility, as well as those already working inside the tank farm, were instructed to exit the area. No waste-disturbing work activities were being conducted inside the farm at the time of the report.

Samples were taken in the area and results are compliant with safety standards. Access to the area has been restored."

Hanford is located near Richland, Washington and is considered the most contaminated workplace in America. Plutonium for the country’s nuclear weapons program was produced at the massive 565 mile site from 1943 to 1987.  The waste left behind by the production has proven far more dangerous, difficult and expensive to contain and clean up than anyone expected. 

Copyright 2016 KING


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