Health Screening Program for Nevada Nuclear Test Site Workers Helps Detect Silicosis and Beryllium Disease

Photo: Health Screening Program for Nevada Nuclear Test Site Workers Helps Detect Silicosis and Beryllium Disease
Photo is courtesy of the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection

 

Nuclear weapons testing at the Nevada Test Site (NTS) ended in 1992. Yet two decades later Raymond Meister, associate clinical professor in UCSF’s Division of Occupational Medicine, is part of a team of doctors who continue to offer health screening for former workers. In total, the team has conducted over five thousand exams since the program’s inception in 1998.1

With the emphasis on the development and testing of nuclear weapons, there was a reduced focus on health and safety when testing began at the NTS in the early 1950s. Radiation, silica, beryllium, and other exposures at the site are now known to have had lasting effects.

“Many of the health hazards that these workers are at risk for have long latency periods. Silicosis and beryllium diseases are two examples. It is important to provide ongoing screening as it can literally take decades for these illnesses to become apparent to the point of being diagnosed,” says Meister.

With funding from the Department of Energy, principal investigator Lew Pepper, an occupational health physician from Queens College-City University of New York, leads collaborators of the NTS former worker screening program. Robert Harrison, clinical professor in UCSF’s Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, and John Balmes, director of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, are also part of the team, along with doctors from the department of Family Medicine at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.

“We take a detailed medical and work exposure history, and offer a physical exam and medical tests, depending on their work exposures. We’ve added a blood test for beryllium exposure and more general health tests such as cholesterol, HDL (high-density lipoprotein) and glucose levels,” reports Meister.
NTS contained miles of underground tunnels where employees conducted nuclear testing once above ground testing was banned in 1962. “The rock where workers dug the tunnels had silica in it. That’s why there is higher percentage of silicosis,” explains Meister. “The mining equipment was extremely loud, contributing to hearing loss. Beryllium was used in nuclear device parts, which explains why we found workers who have been sensitized to beryllium. They can go on to develop chronic beryllium disease; therefore, having the blood test to learn if someone is sensitized to beryllium allows us to keep a closer eye on these patients.”

The same group from Queens College and UCSF now also run a similar screening program in Northern California. This project aids former workers employed by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, also in Livermore, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

1 http://coeh.berkeley.edu/docs/bridges/2001MarchBridges.pdf

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