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What’s Behind ‘Mysterious’ Sickening Vapors at Hanford Tank Farms?

What's behind those mysterious vapors at tank farms?
What’s behind those mysterious vapors at tank farms? (Getty Images)

Could officials have known about these airborne hazards quite some time ago?  A new report says it’s possible.

KING5 TV in Seattle recently published a story that calls attention to a 14-year old report done by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) that  may shed some light on the mysterious vapors that have either sickened or been smelled by at least 37 workers at Hanford’s AP and SY tank farms so far this year.  Over the years other workers have also been affected by odors or vapors.

The workers have either smelled the odd “fumes”, or have even suffered burning of the eyes and respiratory issues from them.

KING5 says the report was done in 1997 by PNNL and suggested that “very little” was known about the vapors being emitted in or around the sites.   While the study did not point a direct finger at potential cancer-causing sources, the report did say:

“…employees working around tank C-103, or downwind from it, on a consistent basis for 25 years had a 1 in 50 chance of developing cancer, compared with a 1 in 10,000 chance as acceptable by OSHA.  The chance of developing serious conditions such as reproductive and nervous system diseases was deemed to be exponentially higher.

The scientists said that very little was known about the real health threat posed by chemical vapor releases at the Hanford Site and that more investigation was necessary to ensure worker safety. They stated it was “unclear whether cancer is induced after chronic exposure or perhaps after a single release.”  (Bold lettering added for emphasis).

According to KING5, workers had “historically” been told the area was relatively safe because vapors and odors were well below Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards.    Some former workers who are suffering from physical ailments related to exposure to vapors in previous years said they were angered and surprised when they learned of this report.   One worker, who was sickened in 2007, said had he known of the PNNL study, he would have made sure he always wore his respirator and protective gear near the tank farms.  Some officials say the report was “buried” by the Department of Energy.

The report cautioned that what workers were dealing with was relatively unknown, and the vapor situation merited more studies and investigation to ensure worker safety.

Asked why the DOE didn’t release the report, DOE officials sent KING5 another conflicting study done by an environmental toxicologist at Havard School of Public Health, who disputed the PNNL findings.   One official said that’s how the DOE operates,  when they get a study that they don’t like, they go get another one.  Dr. Tim Takaro, who chaired the Hanford Advisory Board’s Health and Safety Committee for 9 years, says:

“This is not surprising. This happens all of the time in the risk assessment industry, whether it be tobacco, asbestos, or (Hanford) tank vapors. If you don’t like the study you get, you go out and get another one.”

What IS known, however, is that some 37 tank farm area workers have been sickened or smelled something, and where it’s coming from or what’s causing it continues to be a troubling mystery.

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