Nuclear Half-Lies

Mallinckrodt's workers were poisoned and the government said it would pay. So far, those promises haven't been kept.

They're referred by the company to the federal government. And yet when workers and widows request records from the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Department of Energy, the agency that took over the AEC, they hit a brick wall. Mallinckrodt workers who've tried to obtain records of their federal "Q" clearance -- the security clearance many had from the FBI -- also have been told that there are no such records.

"Nobody claimed me," one former worker said at a July gathering of former workers, widows and surviving children. "For fifteen years I worked there and there were no records. Mallinckrodt still doesn't claim me." For her, the only agency that could help her prove she worked at the company was the Social Security Administration. They had records showing that Mallinckrodt paid into the federal-retirement system on her behalf decades before.

Part of Coffelt's claim, for the time period from 1945 to 1948, was also initially denied because her records showed her husband worked at "Mallinckrodt Chemical Works" instead of the "Destrehan" plant. Coffelt was told she needed to specify which of the three Mallinckrodt plants her husband worked at during those three years -- even though the uranium division only operated at one plant during that period.

Proving employment at Mallinckrodt was the first hurdle; the next was proving what the worker actually did. The records don't always prove that a worker was employed by a particular division nor do they always accurately depict the job the person held.

It is difficult for the people who worked in the division 50 years ago to remember what they did, but it is almost impossible for widows and children to figure it out. And yet, the type of job the worker had is very important for reconstructing the amount of radiation he or she might have been exposed to.

A worker in the bag house, which contains high levels of toxic dust, would potentially be exposed to more radiation than a secretary working in the plant office. The higher the radiation level, the more probable it becomes that an illness or disease was caused by the work at Mallinckrodt, and the greater chance a claimant has to receive the law's benefits.

And there's another problem that people like Coffelt and Brock didn't expect: getting medical records needed to prove an illness.

Brock obtained most of her father's records, but others have discovered that the medical records they need have been destroyed. For many, old death certificates aren't helpful because they were filled out by doctors who didn't know that low-level radiation was a problem or that it was a problem at Mallinckrodt. According to Dr. Daniel W. McKeel Jr., an associate professor at Washington University, some of the workers' death certificates claim people died from a fractured finger or nerve damage to the thigh.

If medical records do exist, doctors and hospitals often quote extremely expensive copy fees, fees which Brock says are supposed to be waived under the law. But few know about the provision.

It took Brock's mother three years to get to the stage where the government was satisfied that her husband worked for Mallinckrodt and had medical records showing an illness. So last month, she received a letter saying that the government was moving her claim to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health for what is called "dose reconstruction." At this stage, the government tries to calculate the amount of radiation that a worker was likely exposed to. They take into account the type of job the worker had, whether the worker was involved in any workplace accident, the kinds of material he or she handled, and radiation readings from badges the worker was asked to wear decades ago.

But before making the calculation, NIOSH told Coffelt she'd have a phone interview that would cover her husband's job duties and workplace accidents. They sent a questionnaire wanting to know what radioactive nuclides Christopher Davis was exposed to more than 43 years ago -- and whether he was exposed to liquids, solids or gases.

"How do you expect people to know that?" Brock says.

What's frustrating is that the government is asking claimants for dose-reconstruction data that it should already have. "To me it is contradictory," Brock says. "Do they or do they not have the records?"

Realizing that her mother's difficulties were shared by others, Brock organized the United Nuclear Weapons Workers of St. Louis. The organization, she hoped, would allow ex-Mallinckrodt employees to get information their former employer and government weren't sharing.

Brock's had uncanny success.

At a recent meeting of her UNWW organization, she was able to share information that other ex-Mallinckrodt workers or their survivors haven't been able to get their hands on, including badge numbers, employment dates and "Q" clearance dates. These records didn't come from any official source.

When pressed, Brock will only say she obtained the documents from a "private archive." While claims are held up because the government demands more documentation from the former Mallinckrodt workers and their survivors, it turns out that information that might easily verify who was exposed was already compiled, much of it at government expense. And key records, it turns out, may be sitting in a basement in University City.

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