|published Thursday, January 29, 2009 ||675 Views :: 0 Comments |
|Santa Fe New Mexican|
Jan 29, 2009
Sue Vorenberg | The New Mexican
About 1,890 employees and visitors to Los Alamos National Laboratory could potentially have been exposed to beryllium contamination at a storage facility in Los Alamos Canyon, lab officials said.
The contamination happened sometime between 2001 and fall 2008, and happened in a part of the lab that is not designated for work on beryllium, said Kevin Roark, a spokesman.
"Right now it's not clear how the beryllium got there," Roark said.
Lab officials have launched an investigation into how the contamination occurred, Roark said.
Beryllium is used in nuclear weapons development, but also in manufacturing, electronics and lab work, among other areas.
Exposure to the chemical in some sensitive individuals can lead to chronic beryllium disease. The disease can cause an unexplained cough, shortness of breath and fatigue, among other symptoms, said Ingrid Drake, an investigator and beryllium expert from the Project on Government Oversight in Washington.
Exposure has also been linked to elevated risks of lung cancer in some studies.
Los Alamos workers noticed the problem after the storage area, which is in Technical Area 41, got a package that appeared to be contaminated, Roark said.
After the package was received, the lab investigated the area and found contamination that wasn't associated with the package, he said.
"The item that triggered the testing was not the item that caused the contamination," Roark said.
The last time the area was tested for beryllium was in 2001, which is why the lab is contacting so many people and warning them of possible exposure. It's unclear when the contamination actually occurred, Roark said.
"The last time it was checked was 2001 because it's a non-beryllium area," Roark said.
Lab officials aren't expecting that many people were exposed, because the beryllium wasn't airborne, Roark said.
Also, only about 2 percent of the population is sensitive to beryllium exposure, and of those, only a small fraction can develop chronic beryllium disease, he said.
"Beryllium is only hazardous when it's in a fine powder form and it's airborne," Roark said. "This contamination was a fine powder, but it was surface contamination and not airborne. So far, no one has been diagnosed with the disease."
Still, surface contamination isn't something to take lightly, Drake said.
"If it's on equipment, it's surface contamination, and if somebody moves the equipment, it becomes airborne," Drake said.
Beryllium contamination seems to be a problem across the Department of Energy Complex, Drake added, citing numerous incidences of potential contamination over the past several years at Lawrence Livermore, Oak Ridge and Sandia national laboratories.
"This is not the first time beryllium has come up in the last several months," Drake said. "Lawrence Livermore had five incidences in that time, and it appears management hadn't been all that concerned about it. This is a (Department of Energy) complex-wide problem."
Sandia National Laboratory reported 59 occurrences of possible beryllium contamination since 1991, and anonymous sources within Los Alamos have told POGO that the lab has had 59 occurrences "over at least the last 10 years," Drake said.
POGO requested information from DOE about how often beryllium sampling occurs at the labs through the Freedom of Information Act in Sept. 2008, she added.
"So far, we haven't received a response," Drake said. "But overall our impression is that management is not taking the issue seriously at all."
Roark said Los Alamos management does take the issue seriously, which is why it's informing people about the possible exposure.
The lab will perform free beryllium sensitivity tests for anyone that might have been exposed, he added.
Those that were potentially exposed can call the lab's Safety Help Desk at 665-7233 for information or to set up a sensitivity test.
Contact Sue Vorenberg at svorenberg@sfnewmexican.
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