Department of Energy Nuclear Sites Pose Elevated Mesothelioma Risk

A study published in the September issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine shows that older construction workers who were employed at four United States Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear weapons sites have an elevated risk of contracting mesothelioma and other asbestos cancers.
Duke University, the University of Cincinnati and several other educational institutions conducted the study, which was funded by the Department of Energy. It analyzed the mortality rate of nearly 9,000 workers at nuclear weapons facilities, all of whom had participated voluntarily in medical screening programs from 1998 through 2004. The workers were employed at four different DOE sites, including Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington, Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee, Savannah River Site in South Carolina and Amchitka site in Alaska.

The researchers noted a total of 674 deaths in the group, a number which was slightly lower than expected, but among those deaths, the workers who were identified as asbestos workers and insulators had a significantly higher death rate.

A number of cancer deaths, including the asbestos cancer mesothelioma, were reported; the mortality rate for mesothelioma was six times the standardized rate. For workers who began their tenure at the sites before 1960, the mesothelioma mortality rate was 11 times that of the general population. Asbestosis, a non-malignant disease of the lungs, was found in the nuclear facility workers at a rate 30 times higher than the standardized rate.

Mesothelioma, a rare cancer which affects the membranes which line and protect the chest cavity and lungs, is almost always linked to asbestos exposure. It can take up to 50 years to become symptomatic, and is considered incurable.

The Department of Energy established medical screening programs at the four sites in 1996 and 1997, and a number of other sites thereafter. The researchers who were involved in studying the results of the medical screening have recommended that the study be expanded, to include data from workers at other sites, and to include a follow-up study of the current group.