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Thursday, December 19, 2008  
Livermore Lab Workers May Be Exposed To Toxic Dust

By: Anna Werner
Published In: CBS 5
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LIVERMORE (CBS 5) - Officials with the Lawrence Livermore Lab are looking into a potential hidden danger: hundreds of workers have been possibly exposed to a toxic metal dust.

"It was hard," said Joyce Brooks, talking about the loss of her husband to beryllium poisoning. "I have anger," she said. Carl Brooks came straight from the Air Force to work at Livermore Labs in the 1950's. For the next 30 years, he machined parts out of the lightweight metal beryllium.

"The dust was very toxic," she said. "And they did not have much protection except a paper mask." Eventually it destroyed his lungs. Carl Brooks died in 2000.

"His life was taken because of his work, and his loyalty to the lab," she said.

The lab has been working with the metal beryllium for several decades, primarily for aerospace and nuclear weapons work. But nowadays, lab workers are supposed to be wearing special protective gear, to make sure they are not exposed to beryllium's potentially serious health impacts.

And how serious can those problems be? "It can be a life threatening disease," said Dr. John Balmes, a public health doctor at San Francisco General Hospital and leading expert on beryllium exposure.

Dr. Balmes told CBS 5 Investigates that some workers who become sensitized will develop Chronic Beryllium Disease. "You could be in big trouble," he said.

Since Carl Brooks died, there have been at least five documented incidents where workers were potentially exposed to beryllium yet again. In one incident, 178 construction workers retrofitting a machine shop building known as 321 C were exposed to beryllium over a four-year period ending in 2006.

And how could that happen? CBS 5 Investigates asked the lab's health services director, Dr. Jim Seward. "We did not recognize at the time that the building went to renovation, that there was potential contamination in the upper reaches near the rafters of the building where some of this work went on," he said.

That exposed those unprotected construction workers. "By the time we understood that there was a problem, the renovation work in that facility was essentially done," Seward said.

Livermore Lab critic and activist Marylia Kelley said that's unacceptable. "Beryllium had been used in that building for more than 50 years and yet there was no presumption that there might have been contamination," Kelley said.

And it's not just the construction workers. In a report obtained by CBS 5 Investigates, an independent team that analyzed those incidents found lab workers themselves also may have been put at risk. The report said, "It is possible that unprotected workers in (the) building were exposed to beryllium for years."

How could such a simple but serious mistake occur at the lab, given what the lab already knows about beryllium and exposure? "Based on the data from sensitizations that we were tracking very closely between 2000 and 2006 we had no reason to believe that we had a significant problem," Seward said.

CBS 5 Investigates asked why after knowing that the building had been used for beryllium for 50 years the lab still didn't think to exam it from top to bottom, including the rafters. Seward responded: "I have to agree with you. Being a physician and being very proactive I wish we had done that in retrospect."

Seward said the laboratory is surveying 160 buildings looking for beryllium contamination. Already, they've found some startling results: 20 buildings with levels above acceptable, and a few with "more extensive" contamination.

And now they're assessing how many more workers were exposed: So far, 250 have been identified as having past exposure to beryllium and another 350 are being watched. To which Joyce Brooks said: "I feel for them, because it's the not knowing, that possibly some day it could be more."

The construction workers that were exposed were not notified for almost a year after the seismic retrofitting job ended. Many of them have yet to see the official lab report on the incident, which was released in December month through a Freedom of Information Act petition.

Tri-Valley CAREs runs a sick workers support group in Livermore. For more information contact staff attorney Robert Schwartz at 925-443-7148.

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