The Department of Energy is bringing experts in beryllium exposure to the Tri-Cities to help former Hanford workers learn more about whether their health could be affected by the metal.
Former employees may have been exposed to fine particles of beryllium when they worked at Hanford. In some people, it causes an incurable lung disease.
Some 32 workers have been diagnosed at Hanford with chronic beryllium disease, including 17 people still at the nuclear reservation. But that does not count people whose illness was not diagnosed while they still worked at Hanford. Hanford contractors are conducting briefings for current employees to learn more about beryllium. But DOE also wanted former employees to have a chance to learn more about beryllium, its hazards, how to be screened for chronic beryllium disease and financial compensation available for those who are ill.
It’s the first beryllium information meeting DOE has held for former Hanford workers, said DOE spokesman Geoff Tyree.
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Beryllium was used in the cladding for fuel fabricated at the Hanford 300 Area to produce plutonium at Hanford reactors. But fine particles of beryllium that may be inhaled also have been detected in buildings elsewhere at Hanford, including many buildings in central Hanford and buildings associated with the K Reactors.
It’s also been found in buildings used by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
In some people, beryllium has no adverse effect, but in others their immune system sees beryllium as an invader and builds an “army” of cells in the bloodstream that react to beryllium wherever they see it in the body. That can be detected in a blood test and those people are considered “beryllium sensitized” and at risk of developing chronic beryllium disease.
In addition to Hanford workers who have been diagnosed with chronic beryllium disease, another 113 workers have been diagnosed as beryllium sensitized since 1997. There are no symptoms of beryllium sensitization, but people with chronic beryllium disease have scarring in their lungs.