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
Lung cancer danger occurs even at 'safe' levels,
People who inhale plutonium have a higher risk of
lung cancer than previously believed, according to a study of Rocky
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
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
Gulden said he's more interested in seeing the federal
government speed up the payment of compensation to nuclear workers like
"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
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: