Human Health & Safety

DOE Ltr and findings Plutonium Finishing Plant, July 7, 2011 – documenting systematic breakdown in radiation safety at Hanford’s PFP.


The controversy about whether or not — and at what levels — radiation is harmful to human health is over. The accepted scientific consensus is that there is no “safe” dose of radiation.


Safety was constantly advertised during the Manhatten Project and Cold War years

Government agencies at Hanford understand this and have adopted the ALARA principle for radiation, which means that exposure should be kept to levels “As Low as Reasonably Achievable.” The presumption is that any exposure to radiation is harmful. If exposure is unavoidable, other methods of control are used, like protective clothing and gear or minimizing time and proximity around a radioactive source.

Exposure to hazardous (non-radioactive) chemicals does not yet receive the same level of concern. The Hanford Site is widely acknowledged as this nation’s most highly-contaminated facility. The most dangerous wastes are stored in leaky underground tanks and much of the waste is uncontained in the environment in the form of contaminated soil and groundwater.

In this section, you will find:

Overview of Hazards to Workers and the Public

During Hanford’s decades of plutonium production, radiation exposures to workers and the public were much greater than today. A series of government-sponsored studies conducted over several decades has established that cancer and illness rates among nuclear workers are much higher than for the average population. The public were also exposed to Hanford radiation from airborne releases, discharges to the river, and consumption of wildlife contaminated by Hanford’s releases (mostly oysters, clams, and fish).

Large inventories of radioactive substances remain uncontrolled and uncontained on the Hanford Site. Radioactive contamination can be found around at the edges of the site – typically near the river. Well-documented plumes of strontium-90, uranium, and tritium seep into the Columbia River. Recently Hanford Challenge has discovered and documented the presence of Hanford thorium on the river banks of the Columbia, in some cases in spots that are used by the public for recreation.

It is well documented that radioactive tumbleweeds, animals, and insects have been found on and off the Hanford Site. The long-lived nature of any of these radionuclides makes the notion of permanent containment unlikely.

Marco Kaltofen Thesis: Microanalysis of Heterogeneous Radiation in Particulate Matter as an Aid to Nuclear Source Identification, August 2009

Toxic chemical exposure

The hazards at Hanford are not just radioactive. Tens of thousands of toxic chemicals have been disposed of on the Hanford site in the high-level waste tanks and in burial sites in ground, often mixed with radionuclides. These sites are a toxicologist’s nightmare. Many of these chemicals have not been studied for their effects on human health, though most are in classifications of chemicals known to have toxic effect.

Here is a list of just a few of the toxic chemicals found at Hanford:

  • Asbestos
  • Beryllium
  • PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls)
  • Mercury
  • Carbon tetra-chloride
  • Hexavalent chromium
  • TCE (trichloroethylene)

Chemical Vapor Exposure in the Tank Farms

Hanford is grappling with the problem of chemical vapor hazards. At the Hanford tank farms it is well-documented that chemical vapors are causing worker illness and in some cases long-term disability. The Department of Energy’s Office of River Protection (ORP) is finally recognizing the severity of chemical vapor exposures and taking steps to minimize exposures and help vapor-injured workers through the compensation process.

Over 1,400 chemicals have been documented in the vapors contained within Hanford’s tank headspaces. These vapors escape through various tank equipment and piping.

Workers exposed to the tank vapors experience numerous health effects such as:

Map of radioactive iodine

Map of radioactive iodine-131 fallout from Hanford (click map to learn more)

  • Nosebleeds
  • Persistent headaches
  • Tearing eyes
  • Sticky eyes
  • Burning skin
  • Contact dermatitis
  • Increased heart rate
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Coughing
  • Sore throats
  • Constant need to clear throat
  • Expectorating
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Metallic taste in mouth and on lips

Our years of experience dealing with Hanford workers leads us to believe that the more serious health impacts from tank vapor exposures are long-term in nature — some Hanford workers have been placed on long-term disability resulting from chemical vapor exposure.

Tank Vapors, DOE, and Hanford Contractors

The vapor exposure controversy is historical. Numerous oversight investigations were conducted by the Department of Energy (DOE), Congress, and the Inspector General in the early 1990’s after 16 exposure incidents took place over a 4 ½ year period. The resulting reports found gross mismanagement and potentially criminal activity in failing to protect workers from known hazards, and reforms were briefly instituted. In 2003, the Nuclear Oversight Program of the Government Accountability Project issued a report documenting numerous worker injuries and illnesses resulting from chemical vapor exposures. This led to three separate government oversight investigations in 2004 by the DOE, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the State of Washington.

The governments’ reports led to the shutdown of the tank farms work and the institution of required supplied air for workers in the tank farm area. In 2006, the main tank farm contractor, CH2M Hill Hanford, issued a report called the Industrial Hygiene Chemical Vapor Technical Basis. This report was reviewed by Hanford Challenge and concerns were raised. The issue was brought by Hanford Challenge and CH2M Hill Hanford to the Hanford Concerns Council for an independent review.

The Concerns Council appointed an Expert Panel to conduct the review of the Technical Basis report, which was given to the contractor and Hanford Challenge in July 2008. The complete review is available here, and Hanford Challenge has also prepared a useful summary.

Safety today

Safety today: Hanford Challenge meets with DOE's Office of River Protection to discuss the hazards of toxic vapor exposure to workers in Hanford's tank farms

A key finding of the Expert Panel states that “the committee is unable to conclude that the protective measures are sufficiently conservative to protect worker health.” In other words, the Technical Basis, which is a health and safety roadmap for the contractor, won’t protect workers from vapor exposure. (p. 4, Executive Summary).

The Panel also found uncertainties in the vapor sampling processes and procedures. Samples were not representative of worker exposures (p. 31), were not part of an overall sampling strategy (p. 11), and were stored improperly (p. 12).

CH2M Hill’s chemical vapor monitoring equipment can only accurately test for a small fraction of the over 1,400 chemicals potentially coming out of the tanks, and monitoring occurs only a small fraction of the time workers are in the field. Currently, only two to three chemicals are monitored by Industrial Hygiene Technicians: ammonia and nitrous oxide and, sometimes, total organic carbons.

Based upon recommendations by the Expert Panel, Hanford Challenge is urging the following:

  • Vapor control zones should be expanded around known vapor emission points
  • Expand the number of chemicals for which the contractor monitors
  • Engineered solutions to the vapor issue should be explored, including a proposal to divert chemical vapors to a remote area of the site, away from workers.

The new contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions, DOE, and Hanford Challenge are in agreement that the Hanford Concerns Council should continue to play a role in studying the vapor issue and assisting with issues related to implementation of worker protection procedures, policies, and equipment.  In 2009, WRPS and Hanford Challenge asked the Independent Review Panel to perform an additional assessment.  This assessment was released in October 2010, and concluded that progress had been made in some areas, and that there are still actions that need to be taken to improve worker protection from chemical vapor exposures.  See the Joint Response of both Hanford Challenge and WRPS, WRPS’ response, and the article in the Tri-City Herald about the report.

Worker Experiences with Tank Vapors

Our September 2003 report, Knowing Endangerment: Worker Exposure to Toxic Vapors at the Hanford Tank Farms describes workers’ experiences with vapor exposure.

“The chemical vapors emanating from the Hanford tanks have various described odors: ammonia, rotten eggs, wine, old socks, musty, diaper pail, garlic, whisky, gasoline, wet cardboard, mint, fruit, chloroform, and butter. Other chemicals coming off the tanks have no odors at all, such as n-nitrosmethanamine (a carcinogen and liver toxin), propane, propene (asphyxiant), trichlorofluoromethane (asphyxiant), nitrous oxide, and carbon monoxide (poison).

One worker was exposed for approximately twenty minutes to high levels of what was described as an ammonia odor. Later, all of his exposed skin became bright red and he had a putrid, metallic taste in his mouth. He suffered a sore throat and vocal cords, recurring nosebleeds, and the need to constantly clear his throat. He suffered a series of headaches, and for five months his ‘lungs just wept,’ coughing up a white, milky substance, his voice underwent a permanent change, and he woke up in the middle of the night in severe respiratory distress and was rushed to the emergency room for treatment.

Another worker suffered five separate vapor exposures between January and February 2002. He describes opening cabinets attached to tank piping, only to be overcome by vapors that were so powerful he stumbled backwards and had trouble inhaling. This worker suffered burning nasal passages, nosebleeds, a metallic taste on his lips, rashes, welts, and contact dermatitis which took several months to heal with prescription medication. Since these exposures he has become sensitive to gasoline, bleach, ammonia, some paints and deck stain.

Yet another worker’s 2002 exposures resulted in burning sinuses, nosebleeds, sore throat, hoarseness, tearing eyes, nausea, dizziness and increased heart rate. Three physicians each separately concluded that his sinus problems and nosebleeds were the likely result of his exposures to tank vapors.” (adapted from Knowing Endangerment, p. 6)

Hanford Challenge has been working with DOE, ORP, and tank farm contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions to bring attention and resources to this issue. We are lucky to have Shirley Olinger, manager of ORP on the side of workers who have been injured by chemical vapors. Sadly, there are still many managers who dismiss chemical vapor hazards as “just a smell,” and treat concerned workers as if the problem is only in their head.

Beryllium Exposure

Beryllium is becoming more widely recognized as a chemical hazard at Hanford. Some people are sensitive to beryllium and face serious, incurable health effects from even tiny exposures. Sadly, it is only possible to know if an individual is sensitive to beryllium after they have been exposed.

Worker protection methods like respirators can be effective against beryllium, because it is a particle (not a vapor or gas). But these protections only work when they are used. Also, the presence of beryllium may not be known at a Hanford work site.

The Hanford Advisory Board is expressing more concern for beryllium exposure, as this 2009 statement indicates:

“When certain sensitive individuals are exposed to even minute amounts of inhaled beryllium, they are at considerable risk of becoming beryllium sensitized and contracting a potentially fatal granulomatous lung disease called chronic beryllium disease (CBD) and an increased risk of lung cancer…
…from a worker health and safety perspective based on the number of affected workers, beryllium currently rates as a greater hazard than radiation.”

There are efforts underway to increase the awareness of this hazard and the need for Hanford employees past and present to get tested for sensitization to beryllium. A good resource for beryllium exposure is the Beryllium Awareness Group:

Hanford Downwinders

Due to the extensive releases of radioactive materials from the Hanford site during production years (1944-1988), local residents living near the site have filed lawsuits and claims against the government for illnesses, cancer and death from the releases. Here are links to some good websites about Hanford down-winder issues:

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