Fernald Plant Workers Faced Danger from 2nd Source of Radon

Workers at the Fernald uranium processing plant near Cincinnati were exposed to a second, possibly more dangerous source of <"http://www.yourlawyer.com/practice_areas/toxic_substances">radon, a new study has found.  Researchers at the University of Cincinnati have identified six uranium-ore silos in the plant’s production area that they say that exposed 12 percent of the workers there to dangerously high levels of radon.  More than half of the workers at the plant would have been exposed to low levels of radon, the study said.

An older study had identified two silos on the west side of the Fernald plant as the only source of radon exposure.  But the Cincinnati researchers said that review, conducted by the federal government, overlooked the six silos cited in their study as a source of radon emissions.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), radon is a cancer-causing radioactive gas.  Radon gas from natural sources can accumulate in buildings and reportedly causes 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year in the United States alone.  Radon is the second most frequent cause of lung cancer, after cigarette smoking, and radon-induced lung cancer is thought to be the 6th leading cause of cancer death overall

Radon dangers from the now-closed Fernald plant have been the subject of concern for sometime.  The Fernald plant – also known as the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Feed Materials Production Center -  produced uranium metal mainly for use in plutonium production at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina and at Hanford in Washington state. The plant was operated by National Lead of Ohio (NLO) from 1951 through 1985. In 1986 it was taken over by Westinghouse.

Both the DOE and NLO claimed that people offsite were in no danger from radon exposure, but those assertions were challenged in a 1985 class-action lawsuit brought against NLO by neighbors of the plant. In that year, Lisa Crawford, the lead plaintiff, had discovered that the well that she and her family had been using for drinking water was contaminated with uranium. She also found out that the DOE and NLO had discovered the contamination four years earlier. The DOE settled Crawford’s class action lawsuit  for $78 million in 1989.

According to company records, 7,143 people worked at the uranium processing plant between 1952 and the plant’s closing in 1989.  The University of Cincinnati study is the first to quantify on-site radon exposure among workers.

“Now we know workers in the plant’s production area prior to 1959 may be at increased risk for developing lung cancer and other exposure-related health problems,” Susan Pinney, corresponding author of the study, said in a press release.

According to the study, workers on the third shift faced the most danger from the six silos, and at times may have been exposed to three times the radon as workers on other shifts.  The researchers said this heightened exposure was attributable to decreased air movement and less dispersion of radon gas during the night.

The Fernald plant is now closed, and is now called the Fernald Reserve, a park area with wetlands, forests and prairies. Federal officials say the site will be safe for visitors when it opens this fall.  However, state officials in Ohio maintain that radioactive waste left in could linger for a century.

In July, the DOE agreed to pay a record $13.75 million to settle a lawsuit that the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency filed in 1986. The money will be used to help restore Paddys Run, a small stream that runs for a mile through the Fernald site. The stream was the main path the uranium waste took to get into the groundwater.

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