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More Washington Nuclear Weapons Workers To Be Screened For Cancer

Department of Energy
Two tanks under construction at Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Some construction workers there were exposed to multiple carcinogens.

The federal government and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance are offering free cancer screenings to a particular slice of the workforce: construction workers who helped build and maintain America’s nuclear weapons industry. The program, which began in Tennessee and more recently in eastern Washington, has now expanded into western Washington as well.

The plants where they made nuclear bombs were not, it turns out, places you’d want to do much breathing. Construction crews laying miles of pipe or working in mechanical rooms might get a visit from the insulating crew.

“[They’d] spray the equipment with asbestos,” said Laura Welch, medical director of the Building Trades National Medical Screening Program. “There could be so much asbestos in the air that you might not be able to see your hand when you reach your arm away from your face.”

Welch says on top of the asbestos the air was sometimes full of silica, another carcinogen, and of course, radiation. She says workers told her stories of not even getting the standard-issue dose meters to measure their exposure.

“In the rush of saving the country, the exposure controls were not necessarily always done the way we would want,” said Welch.

So the Department of Energy established a program to screen these workers for lung cancer, starting with people who’d worked at Oak Ridge Lab in Tennessee. It branched out to Hanford workers in eastern Washington last year and now it’s expanding to western Washington as well.

Eligible workers — there are thought to be about 550 of them in the state — can get CT scans at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance to look for signs of disease. Doctors say in the program’s first phase, they’ve already caught a couple cases of early-stage cancer.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.