April 2003

Plutonium might be deadlier than thought

Rocky Mountain News, April 18, 2003
by Berny Morson

Original address: http://www.rockymountainnews.com/drmn/local/article/0,1299,DRMN_15_1898112,00.html

[Posted 23/04/2003]

Lung cancer danger occurs even at 'safe' levels, study says.

People who inhale plutonium have a higher risk of lung cancer than previously believed, according to a study of Rocky Flats workers.

The link between plutonium and lung cancer occurs even at levels currently considered safe, the study concluded.

People who inhaled plutonium were more than twice as likely to get lung cancer as those who had not. That risk level is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for between 12 and 20 years, said Dr. James Ruttenber of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, who led the study.

"Those results suggest a risk from plutonium higher than seen before," Ruttenber said.

He, along with colleagues from CU and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, studied 16,303 people who worked at Rocky Flats for at least six months from 1952 to 1989.

For the most part, those workers had lower rates of cancer and other diseases than the general population of both Colorado and the entire nation.

But those statistics are misleading because the general population includes many people who are in poor health, Ruttenber said.

The picture was different when Ruttenber compared people who died of lung cancer with a sample of other Rocky Flats workers. The 180 lung cancer victims had higher levels of plutonium inhalation than the 718 in the control group.

Ruttenber's findings may be less relevant to former Rocky Flats workers who already have cancer, said Wally Gulden of Arvada.

Gulden, who worked as a quality-control auditor at Rocky Flats from 1966 to 1993, has cancer that has spread to several of his organs. He has been on and off chemotherapy for the past eight years.

Gulden said he's more interested in seeing the federal government speed up the payment of compensation to nuclear workers like himself.

"I would like to have (the money) for my grandchildren's college," said Gulden, who attended a meeting to present Ruttenber's findings to the public.

The number of lung cancer cases is not great enough to begin revising national safety standards for nuclear workers, Ruttenber said. More studies will be needed.

Rocky Flats officials are reviewing the study, spokesman Pat Etchart said.

High rates of lung cancer had been observed among Russians who worked in Soviet nuclear weapons plants. But the Russians received far higher doses than their counterparts at Rocky Flats, which observed stricter safety rules.

David Utterbeck of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said Ruttenber's findings will be of interest to present and former Rocky Flats workers who are wondering whether they are at risk for lung cancer.

Rocky Flats workers fashioned nuclear bomb parts from chunks of plutonium, which is highly radioactive.

Although Rocky Flats is scheduled to close at the end of 2006, Ruttenber's findings are relevant to continued nuclear work in other parts of the country and the world, Utterbeck said.

Rocky Flats workers were shielded from the plutonium by glass-and-steel partitions. They touched the material only through thick gloves.

But the shields were occasionally breached during accidents. Workers also have been exposed as they tear down buildings.

Many people Ruttenber studied received their entire plutonium exposure in a single dose. "We need to think about the way we handle the industrial process," he said.

He is doing a similar study of brain cancer, which occurs at a higher rate among Rocky Flats workers than the general population, although the number of cases is small - 31 among the 16,303 workers.

The "Report of Epidemiologic Analyses performed for Rocky Flats Production Workers Employed Between 1952-1989", by A. James Ruttenber et al, is available from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment:

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