By Joe Walker email@example.com
"I'd gladly give the money back if I'd never had the lung cancer," said Wilkerson, 72, of South Fulton, Tenn. "But you can't very well look a gift horse in the mouth."
He is thankful for the money and even happier that the tiny tumor was detected early by a sophisticated scanner that sees lung images as thin as paper. Wilkerson encourages others — there are an estimated 10,000 current workers and retirees in the 51-year history of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant — to take the free, government-paid tests that saved his life.
Comparing Wilkerson's second and third scans, technicians detected slight growth in a half-inch node in August 1991. Doctors removed the lower third of his lung and recent tests have shown a recurrence. He may have to have the whole lung removed if his other lung is healthy enough to compensate.
"Even if I lose the whole lung, I have a pretty good chance of survival," Wilkerson said. "An X-ray would never have seen it."
Funded by the Department of Energy, the plant Worker Health Protection Program is run locally by workers and retirees affiliated with Local 5-550 of Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International. Medical screening is done by local physicians working in concert with Queens College of Flushing, N.Y.
Dr. Steven Markowitz, a Queens College epidemiologist and head of the program, said 1,760 Paducah workers and retirees have been screened, out of which 1,188 have qualified for scanning based on age, smoking habits and job health factors that put them at high risk for lung cancer.
Four cases of lung cancer have been detected, two in the early stages. That is less than has been found at closed enrichment plants in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Piketon, Ohio, but the results may be "statistical variations," he said.
Markowitz said 12 percent of the tested Paducah workers have indications of asbestos exposure, 15 percent have chronic bronchitis or emphysema and 70 percent have hearing loss.
"For people breathing hydrofluoric acid vapors at the plant and at the same time smoking, really their lung problem was caused by both," he said.
Wilkerson, who retired in 1994 after 37 years at the plant, said he smoked and helped clean equipment containing mildly radioactive, toxic uranium hexaluoride, or UF6. The most dangerous component of UF6 is caustic hydrofluoric acid, or HF. Wilkerson worked in a now-closed building where workers made UF6 and fed it into the plant's massive production buildings.
"We would clean the equipment up before the maintenance people would cut into it, but you couldn't get all the HF out of it," he said. "You didn't have to be rocket scientist to know you didn't need to be breathing it."
An Energy Department investigation revealed three years ago that Paducah plant workers machined beryllium, a highly toxic metal, while dismantling nuclear weapons parts during the Cold War. As a result, beryllium testing has been added to the health screening program and workers with chronic beryllium disease quality for $150,000 compensation.
Markowitz said 1,107 current and former Paducah workers have been tested for beryllium exposure, which requires two positive tests to determine beryllium sensitivity. Thirty-four workers have had one positive test and 28 of them have had a second test. Of the 28, seven have shown beryllium sensitivity, which does not mean they have the disease but qualifies them for free medical screening the rest of their lives.
Wayne O'Keefe of Vienna, Ill., said he was diagnosed beryllium-sensitive and recently had a free lung biopsy in Oak Ridge. Although he has some symptoms — stiff joints and hot flashes — associated with the disease, he has not yet been diagnosed as having it. Incurable but treatable by steroids, the malady can cause loss of lung function.
O'Keefe, 79, retired in 1985 after 28 years at the plant in two stints, the first starting in 1951 when construction began. During the last few years, he worked in a building housing the machine shop.
"I never heard of beryllium until they told me it was in my blood," he said.
James Harbison Sr., a screening program volunteer, said four current and former plant employees have been diagnosed with beryllium disease. Despite working at the plant for 31 years in maintenance and welding, Harbison is healthy but concerned about the thousands of people who still haven't undergone testing.
"If people know anybody who hasn't been through the program, we'd like to contact them," he said.
This month marked the start of an an advertising campaign to try to reach those who haven't been screened.
"It's a good thing. People really ought to take advantange of it," Wilkerson said. "You can feel good and have cancer. I found that out."
Paducah Nuclear Worker
Health Protection Program
Medical screenings — 1,760
Lung scans — 1,188
Asbestos exposure — 12 percent.
Emphysema/bronchitis — 15 percent.
Lung cancer —
Hearing loss — 70 percent.
The mobile CT scanner will be at the the PACE Union hall, 2525 Cairo Road, through Wednesday.
Information: 1-888-241-1199 toll-free. Local contacts: James Harbison, 898-9887; Fred Buckley, 462-3189; Bob Fuller, 554-4189.