The device is present and will be used to screen for lung cancer among current and former workers in Ohio and Tennessee also.
By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
Equipped with a new mobile scanner, the Department of Energy hopes to do lung cancer screening for about 600 current and former Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant workers yearly for the foreseeable future.
The device, a low-dose computerized axial tomography (CT) scan, was displayed at the plant workers' union hall Monday at a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville.
The lawmakers worked "relentlessly" toward securing the scanner and getting a bill passed earlier this month to compensate plant workers for radiation-induced cancers, said Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of energy for environment, safety and health.
"I recognize that it isn't enough to provide workers with health testing, but we must follow through and assist in relieving the massive costs of treating these radiation illnesses," McConnell said.
He said "compelling" information shows there is a 70 percent to 80 percent survival rate for early-stage lung cancer, but the disease is far deadlier if detected later. Overall, because it normally isn't detected early, lung cancer kills about 160,000 people a year and has only a 10 percent survival rate.
The scanner, a joint effort by the federal government and the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union, can identify small nodules for removal before they become life-threatening. The machine is in a customized, 40-foot mobile unit that will travel among the union halls near active uranium enrichment plants here and in Ohio and Tennessee.
Dr. Steven Markowitz of Queens College in New York City, who heads the worker health study, said about 2,000 workers should be screened yearly among the three plants, with 600 to 700 of those being at Paducah. He said 48 people have been screened here in the first three days of mobile scanner use.
The scanner expands the testing program, which had evaluated more than 700 workers here during the past 17 months, primarily for chronic lung disease, hearing loss and kidney and liver diseases, Markowitz said.
Despite pervasive "cynicism" much of it deserved about the inadequacies of government, the screening program "shows that government really can work if you have people committed to solving problems," Whitfield said.
He said it is important to stress that "the burden of proof" is on the government to show that enrichment workers are not entitled to compensation.
Word of the scanner and compensation drew several rounds of applause at the union hall on Old Cairo Road. Also speaking were James Kip Phillips, vice president and director of governmental affairs for PACE International, and David Fuller, president of PACE Local 5-550. The union represents about 850 of the plant's 1,500 workers.
Another speaker, former plant worker B.J. Bond, said he benefited from earlier screening and is pleased with the lung cancer detector. "I do think it (screening) should be more comprehensive, and maybe that will come about later on," he said.
He and Phillips said the union has been "at the forefront" of getting help for sick workers.
"This goes back to the 60s and 70s when I was intimately involved with the atomic energy workers' council and the efforts we made, but we never could get our foot in the door," Bond said. "There was a so-called 'iron curtain' around the nuclear industry. You couldn't find out anything."
After the ceremony, several former longtime plant workers agreed with Bond that the compensation program still isn't enough. The workers, who said they suffer from lung ailments they believe were caused by inhaling chemicals, said the program should include chemically induced diseases.
"I don't think cancer is a problem with many of us," said former worker George Bourgois. "We're not dying from being exposed to radiation out there. ... We were exposed to hydrofluoric and nitric acid fumes, things like that."
Jack Freemen said he, like Bourgois, lost significant lung capacity from breathing chemicals. "It's as much a chemical problem as it is radiation," he said.
The former workers said the program should be expanded to pay health testing, travel, treatment and other expenses.
Markowitz said the basic screening program looks for lung ailments and whether they are work-related. Michaels and Phillips said another part of the legislation calls for the Department of Health and Human Services to set up panels of independent doctors to evaluate claims of chronic lung and other diseases.
"If they (doctors) believe those claims are work-related, the Department of Energy is instructed in this legislation to assist those people through workers' compensation and not to fight those claims," Michaels said.
Some former workers and plant neighbors say the government also should compensate people living near the plant for health problems and land devaluation they think are related to plant contamination.
Michaels said he will meet with members of citizens' groups "sometime in the next few months" to discuss those health issues, although DOE has not decided to compensate neighbors for either health or land problems.
"We'll be focusing on scientific issues, not issues of compensation," he said. "What evidence is there that immediate neighbors have been made sick? What are the methods used to study these questions? That's where we'll be starting from."