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On December 2, 1942, Enrico Fermi loaded Mallinckrodt-purified uranium into a reactor underneath the University of Chicago's Stagg Field bleachers and triggered the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction. Armed with the proof that an atomic bomb could be made, Mallinckrodt's service as a supplier of purified uranium became critical to the war effort. The problem was: Mallinckrodt, like other industries, moved into production under wartime conditions, when meeting demand was of paramount concern. Corners were cut; safety took a backseat.
Years later, Merrill Eisenbud, a former health and safety director for the Atomic Energy Commission, would recall what conditions were like in the 1940s. "These were plants that were designed to operate for, perhaps, 60 days, just to make enough uranium for a couple of bombs," Eisenbud told U.S. Department of Energy researchers in 1995. "They went on for five years, six years, something like that, and the exposures were very high."
The AEC ran the U.S. atomic weapons program and was also responsible for regulating its own safety and the safety of its contractors, including Mallinckrodt. According to Eisenbud, Mallinckrodt's operation in the city of St. Louis -- a plant known variously as MCW, "the main plant," "Destrehan," and "Plant 6" -- was one of the two worst plants in the country in terms of radiation exposure. That was the plant where Christopher Davis worked for fifteen years.
In addition to being hastily erected, Mallinckrodt's plant also processed the most toxic form of uranium ore -- pitchblende exported from the Belgian Congo. Uranium ore mined in the United States typically contains only 1 percent of actual uranium, uranium 238. But pitchblende is unique. It contains as much as 60 percent uranium, both U-238 and Uranium 235, which is very rare and highly toxic. As the pitchblende was processed, it exposed workers to radiation not only from uranium but also material that is even more toxic: thorium, three types of radon, three types of radium, three types of polonium and actinium. Also used at the plant was beryllium, a highly toxic metal.
By Eisenbud's calculations, workers at Harshaw Chemical Company in Ohio and at Mallinckrodt were exposed to dust that contained far more uranium than what was considered safe -- even by the standards of the 1940s and 1950s. "I think the maximum amount of uranium in air was supposed to be 50 micrograms per cubic meter," Eisenbud recalled. "We were measuring milligrams per cubic meter; and they were excreting as much as a milligram a day in their urine." There are one thousand micrograms in a milligram.
In 1999, the government admitted in a report on Mallinckrodt that "exposure levels may have been nearly 200 times the contemporary maximum permissible concentration." June Fowler, Mallinc-krodt senior director of corporate communications and community affairs, says, "I can't comment on something I've not seen [but] our safety practices were always in line with what was required. Always have been."
Eisenbud, who was employed by the AEC from 1947 until 1957, said the government recognized even during the early years of the Cold War that many of the plants would need to be mothballed. "It was obvious that those plants either had to be fixed up or closed, and for the most part, they were closed."
In 1957, Mallinckrodt moved its uranium operations to Weldon Spring in St. Charles County and Hematite in Jefferson County, and the downtown uranium division was closed. But Eisenbud said that just before that happened, he and another researcher, Hanson Blatz, "took on the job of listing all of the employees that ever worked there and the doses that they received -- the whole body gamma dose, the dose to the lens of the eye, the radon dose -- and that was all tabulated."
In Weldon Spring, workers processed uranium and spent uranium. Hematite also worked with spent uranium, which is uranium that's been irradiated and contains plutonium and technetium, both substances that are more toxic than uranium. One-millionth of an ounce of plutonium can cause cancer. Mallinckrodt sold the Hematite plant in 1961 to United Nuclear Corporation, which continued enriching uranium.
Mallinckrodt's contract to process uranium for the government ended in 1966. In its 34 years of operation, the company's uranium division had employed about 3,300 people. Working for Mallinckrodt wasn't the only thing those people had in common: Years later, researchers studied deaths of workers through 1993, and the study showed that the employees tended to be afflicted with cancer more than the general population.
The rate of nephritis/kidney disease was 218 percent higher; respiratory diseases and lymphatic cancers were significantly elevated; cancer of the esophagus was 40 percent higher; rectum cancer, 45 percent higher; pancreatic cancer, 31 percent higher; kidney cancer, 34 percent higher; multiple myeloma/bone marrow cancer was 33 percent higher.
Few, if any, of those workers initially made any connection between workplace exposure to radiation and cancer. When they became sick, few, if any, sought workers' compensation benefits.
Mark Bruning, a former uranium-division worker who is fighting prostate cancer, can't recall any of his cancer-stricken ex-colleagues ever applying for workers' comp. And Christopher Davis didn't apply for compensation either. "We didn't know," says Denise Brock, his daughter. "We just thought it was a terrible break that he got cancer."