Lab spots beryllium contamination

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By Roger Snodgrass

Los Alamos National Laboratory began notifying hundreds of people Wednesday that they might have been exposed to beryllium contamination by working in or visiting a particular area.


The area, known as Technical Area 41, has a long history of use for tritium work and storage of nuclear materials, but a laboratory spokesman described it “as a large area used for storing long-term and short-term materials and items.”


Lab records show that TA-41, located in Los Alamos Canyon between the townsite and the truck route was a former nuclear site that was decommissioned after 1994.


“We’re notifying people who worked in or visited the facility going back to 2001, said Kevin Roark of LANL’s communications office, “because that’s the last time this area was checked.”


Roark is not a technical expert on the subject, but he provided information on the immediate background. “We do have some of the history, but the exact source is still unknown,” he said.


Beryllium is a potentially hazardous metal that has many applications. Susceptible individuals exposed to the metal can contract a serious medical condition, Chronic Beryllium Disease that can impair the lungs.


It is one of the compensable diseases listed under a federal program for assisting nuclear workers.


In November 2008, an item was received in TA-41for short-term storage, bearing a beryllium contamination sticker that seemed to be damaged. Although the package was later dismissed as the source of the contamination, it led to the question of when the area had last been examined for exposure and that in turn led to a new sweep.


After further testing in November and December, it was determined that there was surface contamination above levels permissible by the Department of Energy. That level is .2 micrograms per 100 centimeters.


“We found a couple of spots with a couple hundred micrograms per 100 centimeters,” Roark said, which would be at least a thousand times higher than the DOE level in those spots.


The lab has offered all former employees and visitors to the facility a beryllium sensitivity test. The laboratory’s Safety Help Desk can be reached at 505-665-7233.


A questionnaire along with consultation with an industrial hygienist can help determine if further steps are advisable. Employees found positive in a lymphocyte proliferation test would be eligible for a DOE medical removal protection benefit.


“I always start by asking if this might have been knowable to start with,” said Ken Silver, an assistant professor and worker health advocate in the environmental health department at East Tennessee State University.


A Remediation Feasibility Investigation at Los Alamos from 1993 states, “Technical Area-41 has been used for nearly five decades. It continues to be used for testing, monitoring and assembling for development of weapons subsystems and boosting systems and for appropriate long-term studies on critical systems.”


The report notes that in addition to plutonium and tritium that are often present on the site, there are also nonradioactive but hazardous or potentially hazardous materials like beryllium. Beryllium is further listed on the next page of the same report in a table of “Chemicals currently in use at TA-41, as of October 1992.”


“The DOE beryllium standard required contractors to undertake comprehensive assessments of their buildings,” Silver said. “The reason the DOE beryllium standard took that approach is because they learned a long time ago that human beings should not be used as environmental monitoring devices.”


He added, “You have to wonder why TA-41 didn’t get a second look.”


The laboratory announcement states that about 2 percent of the 240 employees who worked at the facility who were exposed to beryllium could become sensitized and an even smaller percentage could develop chronic beryllium disease.”


The risk to the 1,650 visitors to the facility, lab and non-lab over the years since 2001 is considered “extremely low,” according to the laboratory statement, but they are also being notified.


Laurence Fuortes, a professor of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa, said this morning, “While the risk is pretty minimal, it depends on the genetic dispositions of the people who went through the facility and whether they were exposed to contaminated airborne dusts.”


Fuortes commended DOE for the notification effort, which he said would be unlikely in Department of Defense or other industrial settings.


“Notification of thousands of visitors is really laudable,” he said.


Loretta Valerio, director of the office of nuclear workers advocacy, now under the New Mexico Environment Department said her first reaction was, “I’m very happy that they’re making every effort to contact those who may have been exposed.”


She offered guidance for any employees or retirees who need additional information on testing and benefit issues.


“We’re definitely concerned about it,” she said. “We’re concerned about the lack of monitoring for seven years, because the use of beryllium at LANL is well documented.”


The three outside experts all noted that direct exposure is not the only health hazard.


“There are well-documented cases of family members getting exposed from dust on shoes worn home or secretaries exposed from dust on lab coats or papers carried from a contaminated area into an office,” Fuortes said.


U.S. Sen. Tom Udall’s, D-N.M., office issued a statement shortly after the laboratory announcement expressing his concern as well.


“LANL and LANS must launch a comprehensive investigation into the contamination and how it occurred and take immediate steps to ensure than any other contaminations at LANL are resolved,” he said. “I will continue to work with LANL as this situation unfolds and with any individuals who may have been affected.”