News report traces pattern of illnesses near nuclear plants; Officials say there is no evidence facilities caused respiratory ailments

By Kathryn Winiarski
Copyright 1998 USA Today
September 29, 1998

An unexplained pattern of illnesses has been found in hundreds of people living near the nation's nuclear facilities, The Nashville Tennessean reports today.

At least 410 people living near or working at 13 nuclear weapons plants and research facilities across the country suffer from respiratory, neurological and immune system problems, according to the newspaper, which published its findings in an eight-page, 20-story package.

In 1997, The Tennessean found scores of people suffering from similar unexplained illnesses around the Oak Ridge nuclear reservation in the eastern part of the state. As a result of the newspaper's stories, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nation's premier disease tracking agency, began investigating. So far, the CDC has found severe respiratory problems in a third of the children living closest to the reservation.

This year, the newspaper broadened its reporting.

Evidence linking the ill people at the 12 other nuclear facilities is anecdotal, The Tennessean said. In a year-long investigation, its reporters found ill residents and workers in Tennessee, Colorado, South Carolina, New Mexico, Idaho, New York, California, Ohio, Kentucky, Texas and Washington.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which oversees the plants, said there is no scientific evidence that toxic contaminants from the facilities caused the chronic illnesses.

Only in rare cases did the sites release quantities of hazardous substances large enough to harm people, DOE officials said.

"Not only the people around DOE sites, but also the workers, typically haven't received those kinds of doses," Peter Brush, DOE's top health official, told The Tennessean.

Brush said DOE officials will review the national health complaints raised by The Tennessean. If disease clusters are found, the DOE could urge the CDC to begin a study.

The sick people contend their ailments are too similar and mysterious to have stemmed from anything other than long-term, low-level exposure to chemicals and radioactive elements from nuclear weapons sites. And they want the government to pay for treatment by medical specialists -- a move Brush said is prohibited by Congress unless a "plausible connection" to government contamination is found.

Other experts quoted by The Tennessean believe further investigation is warranted.

"Four hundred people is a lot of people," said George Lucier, director of the environmental toxicology program at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health. "It is something widespread. . . . At least the wheels should be set in motion in which a team of physicians can go in and look at things more systematically."

Many of the ill people interviewed by The Tennessean worked at nuclear weapons production complexes opened during World War II or the Cold War. The facilities housed radioactive elements such as plutonium and cesium; PCBs, which are suspected carcinogens; and toxic metals like lead.

"People need help," said Donzettia Hill, 43, who was an office manager at the Oak Ridge nuclear reservation in East Tennessee until she became too ill to work. "We can't wait until it's too late."

According to The Tennessean, a report is expected later this year from medical experts hired by the Energy Department to review health records of about 50 ill Oak Ridge workers.

While the bulk of those living near nuclear sites remain healthy, the government has conceded to environmental contamination and launched billion-dollar cleanups.

But proving whether such contamination is linked to illnesses is difficult. Everyone comes to the table with a range of medical, occupational and environmental histories that cloud the picture of how and why they fell ill, experts say.

"Establishing an association between exposures to environmental hazards and chronic diseases is a complex area of scientific investigation," CDC Deputy Director Claire Broome told the newspaper. But it is necessary to continue attempts "to detect and investigate health problems that may be associated with hazardous exposures."

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