The Smoking Gun

Former Mallinckrodt workers get some long-awaited fallout

Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article. As James Neton stood at the podium in an Adam's Mark Hotel ballroom in late October, it wasn't just the twelve members of the Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health, seated around white-clothed tables arranged in a U, who gave the health physicist their undivided attention. Gathered behind the board members was an audience that included priests, activists, policy analysts, a staffer from Senator Kit Bond's office, a Missouri Department of Natural Resources division director, members of the local grassroots group United Nuclear Weapons Workers and, most tellingly, former employees who worked with radioactive materials at the Mallinckrodt Chemical Company and family members of Mallinckrodt workers who have passed away.

Neton, an administrator with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, was in town to unveil a government report on Mallinckrodt's downtown location, which during the 1940s and '50s supplied purified uranium needed to build atomic bombs. The advisory board is responsible for administering a federal program to compensate workers who have suffered illnesses related to their involvement in the production of nuclear weapons. The purpose of the 125-page report, called a "site profile," is to re-create working conditions so that researchers can reconstruct how much radiation each worker was exposed to. (For more about the Mallinckrodt workers' plight, see the August 13 Riverfront Timescover story "Nuclear Half-Lies".)

The Mallinckrodt profile describes the work that went on from 1942 to 1957 in approximately 60 buildings at the plant near North Broadway and Destrehan Street, the types of material workers handled, and the radiation doses they may have been exposed to. Additionally, the profile describes radioactive waste generated at the site and accidents that took place there.

Merril Eisenbud, the first safety director for the Atomic Energy Commission, highlighted this secret Mallinckrodt study during a 1995 Department of Energy oral history project, but it only recently surfaced.
Click here for a copy of the full report in PDF format (777k).
Merril Eisenbud, the first safety director for the Atomic Energy Commission, highlighted this secret Mallinckrodt study during a 1995 Department of Energy oral history project, but it only recently surfaced.

Click here for a copy of the full report in PDF format (777k).

"I would characterize it as a fairly dirty operation, and the controls were really not there in the very early days," Neton said.

Although radiation from uranium posed a danger to workers, byproducts released from pitchblende ore shipped in from the Belgian Congo were even deadlier. Some workers who handled the material, Neton said, were exposed to radon levels "800 times the allowable concentrations levels back then -- which would be 2,400 times the current allowable concentration in U.S. facilities."

The fact that Neton's comments were dressed up in scientific lingo didn't lessen their impact on the assembled workers and their families. And the report he helped prepare contained many more revelations that weren't mentioned on that October day:

· In the 1940s Mallinckrodt employees downtown were scooping uranium dust out of filters and furnaces with their hands. For ten years laundry workers at Mallinckrodt washed more than 50,000 coveralls, handkerchiefs and underwear coated in radioactive dust before any attempt was made to decontaminate the garment area.

· In 1949 the company sent three million gallons per day of "liquid effluent" containing up to twelve pounds of uranium straight into the Mississippi River. By 1956 the sewers were carrying away 12,000 gallons per day of pitchblende raffinate, the waste left over after uranium is extracted from the highly toxic ore.

· The site profile list refers to old government reports that estimate that in the early years, Mallinckrodt stacks belched out about 52 tons of uranium.

But perhaps most disturbing of all is a reference, deep in the footnotes of the site profile, to a top-secret report that was prepared in 1950 by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), declassified in 1954 and recently obtained by the Riverfront Times. The 26-page document, dated November 20, 1950, is titled "An Estimate of Cumulative Multiple Exposures to Radioactive Materials, Mallinckrodt Chemical Works, Plants 4 and 6, July 1942 to October 1949." On the cover is a stamp warning that disseminating the report without authorization affects "the National Defense of the United States" and is subject to criminal penalties. The pages are stamped "SECRET." And the contents clearly indicate that management at Mallinckrodt -- which received a copy of the report at the time it was prepared -- knew back in 1950 that they were exposing workers to extremely high radiation doses.

According to the report, the wearing of badges to detect radiation wasn't initiated until 1946, and use was spotty even after that. Dust measurements weren't performed until 1948, breath-radon determinations in 1947. "It is proper to assume that exposures prior to the dates where information became available were at least as severe as they were found at the time of our initial study," the authors wrote.

In 1947, the report notes in chillingly detached prose, the AEC's predecessor was already aware of "considerable" potential hazards to workers. "It was recognized that pending elimination of excessive exposures, here was an unique opportunity to conduct clinical studies on a fairly large size population whose radiation exposure had been considerably in excess of any group for which data are available," the report reads.

For the purposes of their own study, the authors write in another section, "we have taken advantage of the availability of two autopsies and one biopsy from individuals having known uranium exposure."

The individuals were workers at Mallinckrodt. According to the report, J.H. worked in various operations for 43 months. Nine weeks after he was terminated, J.H. died from stomach cancer. The autopsy found uranium in three bone samples. Another worker, J.B., worked in the uranium operation for 24 months. He died of tuberculosis ten months after he was terminated. An autopsy revealed uranium still in his lungs and suggested high levels of exposure while he worked in the plant, as well as uranium in all five bone samples. A living worker was biopsied. And though the reason for the procedure isn't given, the authors write that there was uranium in his bone.

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