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Lab Workers Exposed to Toxic Metal

February 12, 2002

CHICAGO (AP) _ Tests show seven current or former workers at Argonne National Laboratory have blood abnormalities caused by exposure to the toxic metal beryllium, the first such cases discovered at the lab.

The seven have been referred to medical specialists to determine whether they have beryllium disease _ an incurable lung illness that has killed several workers in the nuclear industry.

``We regret that their exposure has caused them physical harm,″ said Brian Quirke, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Energy, which owns Argonne. The facility in suburban Chicago does research in high-energy physics, chemistry and materials science.

The cases were discovered during recent testing by the Energy Department, which was conducting a nationwide screening program of potential beryllium victims.

Beryllium is a strong, lightweight metal that has been used for decades in nuclear weapons and research experiments. Workers who inhale small amounts of beryllium dust have a lifelong risk of developing the illness.

Argonne, which has used beryllium since the 1940s, reports that about 1,775 current and former workers have had potential exposure to beryllium dust. But currently no one works with the metal in a manner that could create dust, Argonne spokeswoman Donna Jones Pelkie said.

The facility ``puts worker and public health and safety first in all its research and has done so for more than 50 years,″ the company said in a statement.

Tests of 97 former workers at Argonne and Site B, a former laboratory at the University of Chicago, showed that six of them have blood abnormalities. Of the 48 current Argonne workers who were screened, one had a blood abnormality.

Officials disclosed few details about the seven cases, but described workers’ jobs as welder, scientist, truck driver, technician and clerical worker. Three of the seven worked at Site B, which used beryllium to construct the world’s first atomic bomb.

As of December, the Energy Department has screened 27,835 workers nationwide, with 183, or less than 1 percent, showing beryllium disease. Tests show 546 had blood abnormalities.


On the Net: Department of Energy: http://www.energy.gov

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