Columbus Dispatch

Columbus Dispatch

43 uranium work led to cancer, man thinks

Columbus company was part of project to build atom bomb

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Felix Hoover

Cecil W. Campbell hopes to get financial compensation from the government.

A dozen men were sworn to secrecy about the work they did with a mysterious metal at a Franklinton factory in 1943.

Time and circumstance have left the sole survivor a shell of his former self, much like the roofless, red-brick B &T Metals building at 425 W. Town St.

Cecil W. Campbell, 88, of the South Side, worked in a special department on the second floor with what he now knows was uranium.

He and his family say illnesses have afflicted him for 50 years. Among them are two types of cancer. He´s trying to convince the federal government that they stem from his work at B &T from 1940 to ´68.

Although the rest of the plant dealt with aluminum, the dozen handled a metal with strange properties for eight months during World War II.

"Rays would come off of extruded bars like heat waves off the highway," Campbell said. "If two extruded 7- to 8-foot bars would roll together by accident, it would cause a spark or small explosion, sometimes causing fire in a wood pilaster."

Campbell knew that the metal and its heavy ash were distinctive, but the work crew had no special safety gear or ventilation, he said. He was an inspector who ensured that parts met precise tolerances.

"You can´t wear gloves using a micrometer; I touched each piece with my bare hands," he said.

Not until about 1947 did he learn that the metal was uranium and that he and the other 11 had been part of the Manhattan Project — America´s effort to build an atomic bomb. B &T was among dozens of such plants across the country.

"We made uranium rods for the A-bomb," said David L. Tolbert, B &T´s current president. Guards with pistols drawn took the rods from the plant.

Neither Tolbert nor Campbell knows the plant´s full role in the effort, but they think it contributed to production of the bomb that Columbus pilot Paul Tibbetts dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.

In the ´30s, Tolbert´s maternal grandfather, Lyman Kilgore, bought the business from the original owners, William L. Bonnell and William U. Thompson. Bonnell, who was white, stayed on as president through the mid´40s, but Kilgore, who was black, was in charge when the company machined more than 50 tons of uranium, Campbell said. Campbell was one of six blacks on the special team; the other men were white.

Many wartime workers were exposed to uranium and many of them developed cancer, but the disease can come from other causes. To prevail with the U.S. Department of Labor, Campbell must prove that uranium is most probably to blame in his case. He´s seeking up to $150,000 and medical expenses under the Energy Employees´ Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act of 2000.

Campbell thinks a relative of another worker at the plant forwarded his name to the department. Initially, he didn´t want to pursue a claim, he said, because he didn´t want to waste time on paperwork and interviews. But after researchers for the government repeatedly contacted him, he relented.

He must prove at least a 50 percent likelihood that his exposure to uranium caused his prostate cancer, diagnosed in 1993, or his lymphoma of the bone marrow, diagnosed in November. Because he is black and older than 40, he already was at high risk for prostate cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. But lymphoma is less common among blacks than whites, the society says.

Campbell has no medical records from his time at the plant, not even in the ´50s when his health problems began, he said. Nor does he have records from later jobs, including those as a banker and deliveryman.

Some of his son Michael´s earliest memories are of his ailing father.

"He had kidney issues in the early ´60s when I was 5, 6 or 7 years old," said the younger Campbell, now 48 and living in Houston. "He was in the hospital and had surgery."

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health used a reconstruction to estimate Campbell´s radiation exposure. He was interviewed by phone, and independent health physicists collected such data as site information, and blood and urine samples. The type of cancer and a person´s age at the time of diagnosis are among other factors considered, the Labor Department says.

The institute´s report includes a statement from Dr. Mark Segal, a local oncologist, who said exposure to uranium "very conceivably" caused Campbell´s cancer. Even so, the agency found only a 32 percent chance that uranium had caused the cancer. A May 31 letter recommends that Campbell´s claim be denied.

He is still scrambling for more information to bolster his claim for an appeal at 12:30 p.m. Thursday at 200 N. High St. Maybe he´ll find the lapel pin Secretary of War Henry Stimson presented to him for his work in helping to defeat Japan.

Some cleanup was done at B &T when the Manhattan Project work was completed, but the Department of Energy found low contamination levels in 1989 and ordered more work. Last year, city inspectors condemned the deteriorating building where the uranium had been handled.

The company once employed 500 people in Columbus, Toronto and Los Angeles, but now it has only four. Its main products are aluminum parts for cars, electronic devices and frames for chalkboards.

fhoover@dispatch.com