Feds to investigate Livermore Lab's handling of toxic metal beryllium
Five incidents involving Livermore Lab's handling of the toxic metal beryllium have prompted two investigations.
A team of outside experts audited beryllium work at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory last month and federal regulators are set to follow up with their own review in September.
Some of the incidents involved workers being unknowingly exposed to beryllium dust, which if inhaled can lead to beryllium sensitivity and chronic beryllium disease, an incurable and potentially fatal lung condition.
In one of the incidents, the lab failed for five months to notify 178 contract workers with GSE Construction of Livermore who were exposed to the metal during a four-year seismic retrofit of a machine shop that ended in December 2006.
Typically, only a small percentage of people who are exposed to beryllium, a very strong, lightweight metal used in nuclear weapons work, will be diagnosed with sensitivity.
But studies show that one-third to two-thirds of those who do will go on to develop chronic beryllium disease within five to 10 years of their diagnosis.
There is some evidence that continued exposure to beryllium after testing positive for sensitivity may make it more likely that a person will go on to develop the disease, making prompt notification of exposure even more important.
"We believe that further exposure accelerates and makes more likely than not, going on to chronic beryllium disease from sensitivity,"
said Lew Pepper of Boston University School of Public Health who heads the Department of Energy's former worker health screening program.
Because of this risk, it is the energy department's policy to transfer employees with beryllium sensitivity away from working with the metal to avoid further exposure.
The machine shop incident resulted from a number of breakdowns in protocol at the lab, according to the DOE Livermore Site Office. The building should have been thoroughly tested for beryllium before the retrofit work started in 2002, but it was not.
Lab spokeswoman Susan Houghton says the decision not to test the shop for beryllium in 2002 before the retrofit began was a judgment call, not a failure to follow protocol.
"At the time, should we have made a different decision? Probably we should have," she said.
According to the DOE, a work planning procedure which would have required beryllium sampling wasn't followed.
"There's a difference of professional opinion regarding what should have happened," said John Belluardo, spokesman for the DOE Livermore Site Office.
In addition, the last time testing was done in the building, in 1999, it was only done up to a height of eight feet, neglecting the rafters, which had collected beryllium dust, Belluardo said.
Some of the contract workers crawled around in the rafters during the retrofit work, unaware of the hazard.
The work finished in December 2006. In February 2007, after a 2004 DOE directive to change beryllium testing protocols at the lab from dry swipe to the more effective wet swipe testing, another round of tests in the machine shop, including the rafters, showed elevated levels of the metal.
However, the lab did not inform GSE Construction until after more tests came back positive in July, five months later. And lab employees continued to work in the building unaware of the test results until September when the shop was finally closed. It is currently being decontaminated.
Houghton acknowledged the workers should have been notified earlier but defends the lab's handling of the testing.
"Until we got the directive to do wet sampling, we believed the dry sampling was accurate," she said. "We had no idea there was a possibility for beryllium exposure."
It's not clear whether dry swipe tests would have shown elevated beryllium levels had they been done in the rafters in 2002, before to the retrofit.
Though the DOE doesn't require wet swipe testing at its sites, after conducting some tests comparing wet and dry swipe testing methods, a letter was sent out in 2003 to DOE sites strongly encouraging them to switch to wet tests.
"The wet swipes are more effective," Belluardo said. "When you clean your house and you use a dust mop as opposed to a wet mop, what's going to collect more dirt?"
The GSE employees who were exposed have the option of getting tested through the DOE's former worker health screening program, run by Pepper.
About 50 or 60 of these workers have contacted the screening program. Of those whose test results are back, there have been a small number who tested positive for beryllium sensitivity, according to program manager Elisa Rossetti.
There are no confirmed cases of chronic beryllium disease among the contract workers to date, according to GSE spokesman Kevin Goodwin.
Another incident being investigated involved a worker who had previously tested positive for beryllium sensitivity entering an area in a building that he thought was clear, but that had elevated levels of the metal, putting the employee at increased risk for chronic beryllium disease.
Investigators also looked into incidents involving breakdowns in communication between management and employees, and failures to update beryllium training records and protective equipment protocols.
"I don't believe the lab has inherently looked the other way or caused any problems they were aware of or chose to ignore," Houghton said. "I believe through the years we have made a good effort to protect our employees and handle beryllium as the regulations called for."
The lab has asked any of its employees who think they may have been exposed in the machine shop or elsewhere to fill out a questionnaire to help determine if they need to be tested. More than 250 lab employees filled out the form, but anyone can choose to get tested.
"We made a decision to offer anyone the ability to get tested," Houghton said. "We understand a lot of this is about piece of mind."
Since the lab began its voluntary employee beryllium testing program in 1999, 744 workers have been tested. There have been two cases of chronic beryllium disease and 24 workers tested positive for sensitivity. Three tested positive this year so far, and one of the cases of disease was diagnosed this year.
Even a few weeks before the machine shop incident came to light, the rate of positive tests for beryllium sensitivity among lab workers was higher than in the past, which prompted DOE to direct the lab to find the reasons for this increase.
"We noticed there was an increasing number of incidents of sensitivity during the last 18 months," said Danny Field, industrial hygienist for the DOE Livermore Site Office. "We wanted to take another very hard look at the implementation of that program."
Since then, the lab has been testing all buildings with possible beryllium contamination using the wet swipe method. To date, 13,000 samples have been taken from 61 buildings with about 70 more to go, according to Houghton.
Some buildings have had elevated levels of beryllium, but only where the contamination was expected and protective measures were already being used. The testing is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
"We've never tested buildings as aggressively as we are now," Houghton said. "So far there have been no surprises."
Experts from the Department of Energy's Savannah River Site and Idaho National Laboratory were among the investigators who audited the lab's handling of beryllium in June. The final report is expected later this month.
The National Nuclear Security Administration, the branch of the DOE that oversees nuclear weapons work, is following up with its own assessment in September, which will include a plan to deal with systemic problems with the lab's chronic beryllium disease prevention program.