Thursday, February 24, 2005

Wastes & Hazardous Substances

RADIATION

DOE to start testing for former contractors for beryllium disease

The Energy Department said yesterday it will pay to test more than 28,000 former nuclear weapons manufacturing workers and contractors for beryllium disease, broadening a program that the agency has offered to its own contract employees since 1991.

The $3.5 million program expansion will allow the employees of 24 companies that had contracts with the government during the Cold War to get tested for the potentially fatal disease, which affects the lungs and is caused by inhaling beryllium dust, a light, heat-resistant metal used in nuclear reactors and electrical equipment.

DOE spokesman Mike Wharton said the agency does not know how many of the 30,000 people are still alive nor how many might be suffering from the disease. Beryllium sensitivity symptoms can take up to 30 years to develop.

"You can get this test paid for as a first step toward accessing the government's workers' compensation program," said Wharton. "The President and [Energy] Secretary Samuel W. Bodman are committed to the department's former workers. We are helping to fulfill a commitment made to them long ago".

Prior to yesterday's announcement, former workers had to pay for the $200 to $600 tests themselves. Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.) said workers who test positive for beryllium disease would receive treatment and monitoring through a companion program run by the Labor Department (Donna Wright, Bradenton Herald, Feb. 23).

The Labor Department program pays up to $150,000 in medical expenses for workers suffering from berylliosis. To date the agency has paid more than $800 million to workers afflicted with the disease. Because the symptoms take so long to develop, officials have said there may be another 800,000 people who have the disease but do not know it (Scott Carroll, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Feb. 23).

"I encourage all workers to go and get this test done," said John Shaw, DOE assistant secretary for Environment, Health and Safety. "DOE is committed to finding these workers, who are heroes of the Cold War. We feel we're doing what is right and we're so glad to be able to do it" (Don Hopey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Feb. 24).

Meanwhile, other former nuclear weapons manufacturing employees who suffer from diseases related to hazardous substance exposure have said the government is taking too long to settle claims through the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program.

Since April 2004, the Government Accountability Office has released four reports that criticize the labor and energy departments, as well as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, for the slow pace of claims processing (Thomas Williams, Hartford Courant, Feb. 24). -- DRL