A Cure for the Common Cold Warrior
Janet Brown was on her way home from work one evening when she suddenly lost control of her car. It crashed through a fence and finally came to a stop in a field. The next thing she remembers is lying flat on her back in an ambulance, a female police officer towering over her. "She thought I was drunk," recalls Brown.
But Brown had had nothing to drink that evening. Nor could she give the police officer any coherent reason for the accident. In fact, she had no memory of what had occurred in the seconds before the car went out of control.
Brown was transported to a nearby hospital, where she underwent a series of diagnostic tests. The doctors thought she had suffered a severe epileptic seizure and asked how long she had been afflicted with the disease. Brown, who was then 28, replied that she didn't even know what epilepsy was. Then they asked her how long she had been having seizures. "I said, 'What are you talking about, seizures?'" she remembers. "And they said, 'You just don't get epilepsy out of the blue.'" A few days later, Brown was discharged from the hospital with a prescription for a powerful anti-seizure medication. None of the doctors had been able to figure out how she suddenly developed epilepsy, but they were sure of the diagnosis.
Brown was eager to return to her job at the Rocky Flats nuclear-weapons plant. The year was 1986, and life was good at the nation's nuclear-weapons facilities. Ronald Reagan was in the White House and, determined to end the "Evil Empire" of the Soviet Union, had ordered a huge buildup in the nuclear-weapons program. As a result, Rocky Flats, which manufactured the plutonium pits and other components that went into nuclear bombs, was operating around the clock, hurrying to fill the orders.
Brown, who had transferred from the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory three years earlier, was a gifted machinist whose skills were quickly recognized at Rocky Flats. She was promoted to first foreman and then product engineer for the W-88, the lightweight, sophisticated warhead that is currently deployed on Trident submarines. She flew back and forth to Los Alamos, New Mexico, the nation's premier nuclear-weapons design laboratory, occasionally carrying top-secret documents that had been enclosed in two sealed envelopes.
Meanwhile, the seizures continued, growing in intensity and frequency. Brown had grand mal seizures while she was sleeping and temporal lobe seizures during the day. The grand mal seizures made her arch her back, stiffen her neck and bite the soft tissues of her inner mouth. The temporal lobe seizures were far milder and occurred dozens of times during the day. Similar to blackouts, they lasted only a second or two but had a devastating impact on her short-term memory. Brown grew exhausted, unable to concentrate; she found it difficult to even read a newspaper article. Finally, in 1994, she took a leave of absence from her job. Two years later she submitted to a radical surgical procedure that she hoped would put an end to the seizures: a lobectomy, in which an egg-sized lump of tissue where the seizures were believed to have originated would be excised from her brain.
At the hospital, the doctors doped her up with pain medication, drilled two holes in her forehead and inserted depth electrodes. Then they watched her brain activity for a week, charting the electrical storms that swept through her head. When they had enough information to pinpoint exactly where the seizures were occurring, they wheeled her into a brightly lit surgical suite. "When I awoke, the doctor said he had good news and bad news for me," Brown remembers. "The good news was that the operation had gone well. The bad news was that they had detected another seizure area on the other side of my brain. I said, 'Well, as long as I'm in the hospital, are you going to remove that one, too?' And he said, 'Not if you want to still be a walking, talking human being.'"
Although she was heavily drugged and her head was swaddled in bandages, Brown didn't miss a word the doctor said, and a gray fog of hopelessness swept over her. But Brown, who married at sixteen, gave birth to a son at seventeen and was separated at eighteen, soon recovered her natural optimism. She eventually returned to her home in Westminster with its splendid view of the Rocky Mountains. Her hair grew back, thick and curly, and her face showed no trace of the relentless disease.
But as she continued going from doctor to doctor, taking one medication after another, a radical, almost heretical idea was beginning to take shape in her consciousness: What if the seizures were caused by something she had been exposed to at Rocky Flats?
In both Idaho and Colorado, she had worked not only with plutonium and bomb-grade uranium, but also with a veritable witches' brew of chemicals that included chromium, nickel, trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene. Through various newspapers articles, Brown learned of other workers in the nuclear-weapons complex who suffered from neurological problems. The ailments defied ready diagnosis but bore an uncanny resemblance to such diseases as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis.
Today, fourteen years after the accident, Brown is more convinced than ever that her epilepsy was caused by chemical exposure. But proving that link will be an uphill battle. While scientists agree that many of the chemicals used in the weapons complex are capable of causing a wide variety of ailments, including cancer, nerve disorders and organ damage, the connections between exposure and disease are not well understood. To make matters worse, the Department of Energy, for the most part, maintained no records at all -- or notoriously incomplete records -- about worker exposures. "They haven't a clue," says Brown.
In a startling about-face, the DOE last year acknowledged for the first time in its history that exposure to radioactive materials or beryllium, a lightweight but durable metal, caused death and disease among its workers. At a public hearing held in Arvada last December, Brown urged DOE officials not to forget workers such as herself who suffered from strange diseases that were not so readily identified. "We are the Cold War warriors," she said softly. "And the legacy of the Cold War will haunt us for the rest of our days."
When U.S. Army general Leslie Groves agreed to take over the Manhattan Project in 1942, he was determined to accomplish two things: one, build an atomic bomb that would actually work; and two, make sure the wartime project was not stopped by any lawsuits. Groves and other members of the top-secret project, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, were concerned about potential claims coming not only from people who lived near the weapons sites, but also from injured workers. They feared that the publicity arising from such lawsuits might alert enemies in Nazi Germany or Japan that the United States was attempting to build an atomic bomb.
But in the decades following World War II, the concern over such lawsuits hardened into a campaign to silence any workers or neighbors who either questioned the safety conditions within the nuclear-weapons complex or claimed that they, or a loved one, had been injured by exposure to a radioactive substance.
The Atomic Energy Commission, the civilian agency that inherited the functions of the Manhattan Project, dealt ruthlessly with any critics. Injured workers were considered malingerers; neighbors who raised questions about contamination were branded as hysterics or communists. Records that were not declassified until the '90s revealed that scientific papers were routinely screened not only by the AEC's classification officials, but also by employees in the medical and insurance divisions intent on seeing that no information escaped that might tarnish the commission's prestige, cause embarrassment or promote lawsuits. Wrote one such official in 1947:
"There are a large number of papers which do not violate security, but do cause considerable concern to the Atomic Energy Commission Insurance Branch and may well compromise the public prestige and best interests of the Commission. Papers referring to levels of soil and water contamination surrounding Atomic Energy Commission installations, idle speculation on the future genetic effects of radiation and papers dealing with potential process hazards to employees are definitely prejudicial to the interests of the government. Every such release is reflected in an increase in insurance claims, increased difficulty in labor relations and adverse public sentiment. Following consultation with the Atomic Energy Commission Insurance Branch, the following declassification criteria appears desirable. If specific locations or activities of the Atomic Energy Commission and/or its contractors are closely associated with statements and information which would invite or tend to encourage claims against the Atomic Energy Commission or its contractors, such portions of articles to be published should be reworded or deleted."
At Rocky Flats and other sites around the country, the United States government spent millions and millions of dollars defeating lawsuits brought by injured workers or neighbors. The Department of Energy -- the successor to the Manhattan Project and the AEC -- hired expensive lawyers from New York and Chicago, gathered a phalanx of expert witnesses, and filed numerous legal motions in an attempt to exhaust opponents. In case after case, remembers Denver lawyer Bruce DeBoskey, one of the first in the country to actually prevail against the DOE, the money spent to defeat a claim far outstripped the costs of settling a legitimate dispute. "People's lives were ruined and they're still being ruined," he says.
By the end of the '90s, though, the DOE was no longer able to stamp out the opposition with such ease. Newspapers such as Nashville's Tennessean, the Toledo Blade and the Washington Post wrote story after story about the working conditions within nuclear-weapons plants, the illnesses among workers, the deliberate coverup of potential dangers by contractors and vendors. For its efforts on behalf of beryllium workers, the Toledo Blade was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting.
In 1998, newly appointed Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who'd replaced former Denver mayor Federico Peña, took a trip to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. There he heard from workers who had developed debilitating illnesses while working in the vast uranium factories. According to aides, Richardson was deeply disturbed by what he heard and subsequently dispatched David Michaels, his new assistant secretary for environment, safety and health, to gather more information.
Michaels, an epidemiology professor on leave from City University of New York Medical School, was well versed in science, health issues and worker's compensation laws. One of the first things that struck him was the difference between state and federal benefits, as well as disparities between the states themselves. In Colorado, for example, a disabled worker can receive a maximum of $519 a week under the state system and up to about $1,400 under the federal plan. "The state worker's compensation plans often did not do justice to the workers," he says. "They either did not receive enough money, or [the plans] were structured in ways that the workers were not eligible to get any money whatsoever."
On the wintry evening of December 15, 1999, Michaels attended a meeting at an Arvada community center where Janet Brown and several hundred other former and current Rocky Flats workers were waiting to talk with him. Rocky Flats had been one of the most important -- and dangerous -- production sites during the Cold War. Outside, a group of steelworkers marched up and down the sidewalk. The audience was restive; the DOE was known for holding public meetings full of sound and fury that resulted in nothing.
George Barrie, a former machinist at Rocky Flats, was one of the first to speak. Slowly he walked to the speaker's table and lowered himself into a chair.
In 1982, when the local economy was beginning its freefall, Barrie had seen an ad for a machinist at Rocky Flats. He filled out an application, underwent a rigorous security review and, eight months later, flashed his new badge at the armed guards. Barrie was eager to make money and advance through the ranks. So when a job opened up in the plutonium-production complex, he applied, knowing that he would get an extra 25 cents in "hot pay."
Barrie was assigned to the team that chopped up and recycled the aging radioactive cores, or "site returns," that had been removed from warheads and returned to Rocky Flats. "It was very scary work," he said in an interview. "I saw alloys that I had never seen or heard about before." Some of the equipment seemed ancient -- vintage World War II -- but it worked okay. "I was very happy about my surroundings and comfortable with all the people who were working with me," he remembered.
Then one morning, while Barrie was on his coffee break, a group of radiation monitors appeared and ordered him to strip. To Barrie's surprise, he learned that he'd been inadvertently contaminated when radioactive materials oozed out of a glove box. None of the alarms had gone off, though, and he'd walked right into the cafeteria with the hot stuff all over his coveralls. Some weeks after the accident, he received a health physics report indicating that he had absorbed plutonium and americium, a radioactive isotope usually found in the presence of plutonium.
Nothing more was said about the incident.
Five years later, Barrie began to get sick with one thing, then another. He underwent surgery for gallstones, then doctors found a benign tumor in his left foot. Soon he developed gastritis, diverticulitis, proctitis, arthritis and, finally, osteoporosis. Eventually he was forced to have several vertebrae fused in his neck. "As the surgeons removed the bone, it fell apart in their hands," he said.
Barrie seemed to be aging prematurely -- a condition that can be a symptom of radiation exposure. But when he tried to obtain worker's compensation benefits, Rocky Flats officials mounted a scorched-earth defense that included putting an expert witness on the stand who said you could drink a cup of plutonium and live a perfectly healthy life.
But today Barrie spends most of his days in bed, with a bottle of morphine tablets at his side. "Sometimes I take the dog out and mow the lawn. Afterwards, I have to spend three days in bed," he said. "I feel bitter, scoffed at and undermined. We built this nation's warheads. We gave up our health. And now we will have to pay for the rest of our lives."
As Barrie spoke, other workers shifted restlessly in their chairs, memories colliding with aches and pains. The room was stuffy and hot, and some people began filing out the door. But others were determined to tell the man from Washington exactly what they thought about being misused by their own government. "I wish everybody who was fighting our cases could take my body into their body for 24 hours and see and feel what I go through every day," said Alphonso Cardenas, who worked at Rocky Flats from 1957 until 1978 and now receives $121 a month in retirement pay.
Roughly a third of those in the audience that evening either had beryllium disease or had developed a sensitivity to beryllium, a condition that may or may not lead to the full-blown disease but nonetheless requires lifetime medical monitoring. Some of the beryllium workers were still relatively young and strong, but they sounded like old men, their breathing labored and harsh and their voices husky, as if they were getting over a bad case of bronchitis.
Beryllium, a lightweight metal that is wrapped around the radioactive cores of a nuclear weapon, had been in use since the early '50s at Rocky Flats. Beryllium was in the air they breathed, on the food they ate, on the clothing they wore home each evening, workers said. Even before Rocky Flats was built, vast medical evidence existed to suggest that microscopic amounts of beryllium were toxic -- but for decades, plant managers reassured workers that beryllium was relatively safe. "We were told we could eat it in 1982," remembered Ted Ziegler, a retired machinist and former safety official with the Steelworkers' union.
Because cancer is so common and can be caused by so many different things, it's always been difficult to prove that a worker's malignancy has been caused by radiation. But that's not the case with beryllium disease. It's caused by one thing and one thing only: exposure to beryllium.
When beryllium dust is breathed in, some of it is deposited in the tiny air sacs in the lungs where fresh oxygen is absorbed into the bloodstream and carbon dioxide is released. In some individuals, the immune system's T-cells will see the metal as a foreign invader and attack. Eventually, fibrous scar tissue can develop and restrict oxygen flow, producing shortness of breath, fatigue, coughing, even death.
According to Lee Newman, a lung specialist at National Jewish Medical and Research Center and one of the country's foremost experts on the disease, it's impossible to predict who will develop a sensitivity to the metal or come down with the disease. "Some of us are just more genetically susceptible," he says. Nearly half the population, he adds, carries the gene that predisposes one to the disease.
Beryllium disease is strange and unpredictable, and it can affect people in radically different ways. Some diagnosed with the disease can live relatively normal lives, requiring little medical intervention. But for others, such as Michael Jackson, a former speed swimmer, cross-country skier and alpine runner who was diagnosed at the age of 41, the disease has been devastating. In the last year, he has developed pneumonia and gone to the emergency room several times. He takes several different steroid medications daily and carries emergency medications in a pack. Jackson knows that the steroids can lead to further medical complications, such as diabetes and blindness; he also knows he has no choice but to continue taking them. "No one can predict what's going to happen," he says.
Soon after he was diagnosed with the disease, Jackson, a computer whiz who is currently a design and systems engineer at Rocky Flats, went straight to his computer and began hunting for information. He stumbled upon a DOE database developed by Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago that contained more than 250,000 historic documents relating to human radiation experiments conducted during the Cold War. It just so happened that the database (http://hrex.dis.anl.gov) also contained dozens and dozens of documents on beryllium disease -- what scientists knew about it, when they knew about it, and what they did about it. "The more I read, the madder I got," says Jackson, who subsequently built his own Web site (www.dimensional.com/~mhj/) where others could read the historic documents or find additional information on beryllium disease.
By the late '40s, those declassified records show, Atomic Energy Commission scientists were acutely aware that beryllium, even in microscopic amounts, was extremely toxic and could cause debilitating lung disease and death. What's more, they also soon recognized that beryllium was causing fatalities among neighbors who lived downwind of the production plants.
But one of the documents' most startling revelations is the AEC's almost obsessive concern with how the beryllium poisoning cases would affect public opinion if they should become known. In a paper titled "Public Relations Problems in Connection With Occupational Diseases in Beryllium Industry," one AEC official wrote, "Aside from the obvious moral responsibility, the AEC public relations problem in connection with beryllium poisoning has two aspects: 1. The effect of widespread publicity concerning beryllium hazard on production; and 2. The effect on the general public toward the AEC. The second aspect is easier to judge. There is no doubt at all that the amount of publicity and indignation about beryllium poisoning could reach proportions met with in the cases of silicosis or radium poisoning. Coupled with the AEC, the story might be headlined, particularly in non-friendly papers, for weeks and months -- each new case bringing an opportunity for a rehash of the story. This might seriously embarrass the AEC and reduce public confidence in the organization..."
This report also broached the delicate issue of how much it would cost to adequately protect workers from beryllium dust. The Manhattan Project and the AEC had recommended that numerous protective measures be implemented, including the use of ventilation systems, respirators, protective clothing, restricted eating areas, mandatory showers and regular physical exams. But many of the contractors had already informed the commission that they weren't in a "financial position" to implement such measures, the report noted, concluding that "a policy decision will be required in which the cost of dust and fume control must be balanced against the potential risk of beryllium fatalities, adverse publicity and possible effect on production."
In 1949, the AEC decreed that no worker could be exposed to more than two micrograms of beryllium per cubic meter of air. But James Heckbert, an attorney who today represents about 25 former beryllium workers at Rocky Flats and numerous others around the country, says that standard was pulled out of thin air by two officials riding in a taxicab. The AEC and the beryllium manufacturers knew full well that the so-called "taxicab standard" would not protect workers, he adds: "They lied to these people. They knew that there were cases developing of chronic beryllium disease where workers were exposed to substantially below two micrograms, yet they manufactured false medical articles, they manufactured false industrial-hygiene practices. They concealed it, they were deceitful, and they covered it up."
Heckbert, who has spent the last five years working on these cases, argues that the AEC and its private-sector counterparts could have implemented safe industrial practices but were unwilling to spend the money. "They wanted to make more bombs, more missiles and more rockets, and in the process, they were going to sacrifice these people if it meant saving money and if it meant keeping their secret," he says. "Because if these people knew the real facts, they wouldn't go to work for the AEC, or they would have demanded more money."
Bob Bistline, a health physicist who's a program manager at Rocky Flats, defends the safety measures that the plant put in place in the old days to protect workers. "We now know that they were not as good as they could have been," he says, "but they were state of the art at the time."
It was National Jewish's Lee Newman who, using a blood test, confirmed in 1984 the first case of chronic beryllium disease at Rocky Flats. Workers undoubtedly had developed the disease prior to that time, Newman now says, but probably were diagnosed with other ailments.
Newman's findings sent a shock wave throughout the nation's weapons complex and prompted an investigation at Rocky Flats. "The medical and safety people were quick to respond," he remembers, "but the lawyers weren't too happy about it."
Of the thousands of people who worked at Rocky Flats between 1952 and today, some 113 people have been diagnosed with chronic beryllium disease, including a secretary who worked in one of the plant buildings. Another 175 workers have developed a sensitivity to beryllium.
Despite the increasing number of cases, in the early '90s, Rocky Flats officials actually reduced the amount of cleanup in the beryllium shop, going from a monthly to a quarterly schedule. Ted Ziegler, the former union representative, says the plant often took the smear samples on a "tidy Friday" level -- that is, after an area had already been cleaned. "There's a big coverup going on at Rocky Flats," he says.
A few months after the Arvada meeting, the White House's National Economic Council issued a carefully worded report that concluded that many workers in the country's nuclear-weapons complex had developed serious diseases and cancer as a result of their workplace exposures: "There is evidence from health studies of DOE workers that suggests that some current and former contractor workers at DOE nuclear weapons production facilities may be at increased risk of illness from occupational exposures to ionizing radiation and other chemical and physical hazards associated with the production of nuclear weapons." Specifically, the report had identified a statistically significant increase in leukemia, breast, bladder, colon, liver, lung, esophagus, ovary, multiplemyeloma, stomach, thyroid and skin cancers.
The report also noted that 40,000 different chemicals had been used throughout the complex. "While chemical hazards have not been either well documented or studied at DOE, a number of reports suggest, either directly or indirectly, that chemical hazards pose a significant health risk to both current and former DOE workers," it stated. "These risks may exceed those posed by radionuclides."
After the White House report was made public, many Rocky Flats workers thought their legal battles were over. Energy Secretary Richardson even admitted during a press conference that some workers had been made sick as a result of their workplace exposures. "The national security mission of the Department of Energy sent into harm's way some of the men and women who helped the United States win the Cold War," he'd told reporters. "They should be honored for their work. The department is finally going to stop fighting these workers and instead help them get the treatment they need."
But Richardson's promise to end the stonewalling has yet to trickle down to regional offices. According to Joe Goldhammer, a Denver lawyer who represents numerous Rocky Flats workers, the government is still sending a fleet of high-powered attorneys and expert witnesses into court to fight worker's compensation claims, even going so far as to appeal certain cases five and six times. "They push everything to the limit," he says.
But Assistant Energy Secretary Michaels insists the DOE is trying to change that mindset. "We're working with our contractors and area offices," he says. "If an injury is work-related, we don't think we should be fighting it. If it reaches the point of saying that we no longer will reimburse attorney's fees, then we are prepared to do that."
In Congress, a bipartisan effort has been under way to develop compensation packages for sick workers or their surviving spouses. One piece of legislation calls for a lump-sum payment of up to $200,000 or a package consisting of lost wages, medical benefits and job retraining for workers who have developed silicosis, beryllium-related disorders or cancer that can be connected to workplace exposure. But on Monday, talks within a House-Senate conference committee discussing the measure broke down, making it unlikely that this legislation will pass before the session ends.
Under the proposal, workers who opt for the package and are not already engaged in lawsuits will waive their right to sue contractors, vendors or the DOE for their maladies. "We think we can offer a generous enough offer that they won't sue," says Michaels. But neither will the program bust the federal government. Of the 600,000 people who toiled in the nuclear-weapons complex over the last fifty years, only a "few thousand people at most" will be eligible for compensation, he adds.
Michael Jackson and others who are already plaintiffs in such lawsuits think this provision lets industry and government officials off too easily. "They should be held accountable," Jackson says. But Michaels points out that contractors and vendors are indemnified anyway, which means the federal government is picking up the legal expenses.
The proposed legislation has other problems, however. For example, some kind of medical board will have to "reconstruct" radiation doses received by workers and then decide whether those doses were likely to have caused an individual's cancer. But dose reconstructions, as well as the connection between low levels of radiation and cancer, are extremely controversial. Furthermore, not only are film badges and other exposure records incomplete or missing altogether, but some facilities intentionally underestimated workers' doses.
At Rocky Flats, says former union leader Jim Kelly, plant officials used a fudge factor when they were calculating doses until they got figures down to where they were acceptable. "Record-keeping was lousy, nonexistent and sloppy," he says. "They ignored their own scruples and ignored their ethics. In doing so, they sentenced a lot of people to sickness and death."
If disputes arise, Michaels responds, they will be decided in the worker's favor. "Workers will be given the benefit of the doubt," he says.
But radiation wasn't the only health hazard at these plants. Many past and present workers in the country's nuclear complex believe their illnesses can be linked to massive overexposures to chemicals. At Rocky Flats, machinists and chemical operators used solvents such as perchloroethylene, trichloroethylene and carbon tetrachloride as though they were soap and water. Pipefitters worked with asbestos-covered pipes; painters used lead-based paint; welders were exposed to nickel and chromium; researchers breathed in formaldehyde fumes.
Even though the White House's National Economic Council concedes that chemical exposures may have contributed to workers' illnesses, individuals such as Janet Brown apparently won't be eligible for the compensatory package. Instead, Michaels says, they'll get help filing for worker's compensation and other benefits through a new workers' advocacy office that will be established as part of the legislation. "This won't make everybody happy," he adds, "but it's a very fair first attempt."
Count Janet Brown among the unhappy ones. She thinks the bill doesn't go far enough and intends to keep amassing information, networking with other workers, and talking to the media until the government comes around. "The United States was the victor in the Cold War," she concludes. "We shouldn't be the victims."
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