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The personal struggle – a rare brain cancer – nothing to do with his radiation exposure at Los Alamos National Laboratory?

Half Life Chad Walde believed in his work at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Then he got a rare brain cancer, and the government denied that it had any responsibility , Pro Publica, by Rebecca Moss, The Santa Fe New Mexican, 26 Oct 18,“………A Gap Between Records and Recollection

CHAD WAS CLEARED TO RETURN TO HIS JOB at the lab in late January 2015, four months after his diagnosis. He’d undergone radiation and two chemotherapy treatments, and Los Alamos’ occupational medicine staff said he was fit to continue working with classified material, his medical records show. At risk for seizures, he couldn’t drive or climb stairs or ladders. Chad carpooled and had Angela drive him to the laboratory several times a week. His supervisor offered him a desk job, a step down from his managerial role — but one that kept his health insurance running. He accepted. The only real alternative was termination.

Roark says the lab’s goal is to treat all employees with debilitating conditions with “utmost respect” and says when employees are unable to perform the functions of their jobs, Los Alamos “makes reasonable efforts to accommodate them,” which can result in job reassignment.

Separately, to process his claim for cancer benefits, the Department of Labor also told Chad it would need all of his medical and radiation exposure records from the lab. The Department of Labor sends these to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, another federal agency that uses a probability equation to determine if a worker had a high enough dose of radiation to cause cancer. If the computer found a 50 percent or higher correlation, Chad would get benefits.

When the records arrived from Los Alamos, containing a single CD and a brief letter, it was the first time Chad realized that his own experience differed from what the lab had noted in its records.

The lab had found “no records” of Chad having been exposed to anything or other environmental occupational hazards, the letter said. And his dosimetry report, a spreadsheet that showed his total dose of radiation annually, was scant.

The lab had not tracked Chad’s radiation exposure in 1999, his first year on the job, the report indicated, or in 2000, when the Cerro Grande fire burned. External monitoring began in 2001 but showed a clean zero for 11 out of the next 14 years. (Only in 2008, 2013 and 2014 were there any hits on the report.)

The report said his total dose was 0.254 rems over his career, well below safety limits and slightly less than an average person gets from background radiation from the sun and environment in a single year. A rem is a unit used to measure the absorbed dose of radiation, with 1 rem equivalent to a CT scan, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Chad marveled at the document. It didn’t track with his memory — or hold any record of the time he’d been called in for going over his limit and accused of taking his badge to the airport, or when he was sent home wearing disposable clothes.

“They aren’t on here,” Chad said when he looked at the document.

It also seemed impossible there were so many years that were completely blank.

Asked about the discrepancy between Walde’s memory and the reports, Los Alamos spokesman Roark said, in general, that the lab “maintains a comprehensive archive of worker radiation dosimetry data” and that it “provides any and all records in response to requests as quickly as possible.”

When NIOSH reviewed the records, it had a simple way to fill in the gaps. For the two years when Chad was not monitored, NIOSH assumed the maximum dose he could have been exposed to was the maximum background radiation at the lab (which was 0.4 rem), adding in the possibility of a couple missed readings.

NIOSH said Chad’s records showed he had been exposed to “various sources of radiation during his employment,” but the maximum dose he could have received at the lab, based on its calculations and assumptions, was a 3.744 rem dose to the brain. The agency modeled his probability for cancer based on how this amount of radiation would affect and mutate cells of the thyroid. It does not have a model for how external radiation might impact brain tissue.

On a phone call with a NIOSH claims representative in September 2015, Chad asked why the agency used general air monitoring data to fill in his missed readings. Chad, who made a recording of the call, said this would fail to account for the radiation present at the more dangerous nuclear areas he had been assigned to.

He told the representative how his badge often took hits. Like he’d told his father-in-law, and his friends, Chad said his boss kept asking him why his readings were “above the reporting levels.”

I “wonder if we are not missing something,” Chad said on the recording. “I also worry about the Los Alamos reporting,” relaying instances in which the lab certified an area free of radiation only to discover contamination later while he was working on a maintenance job. Chad began to talk about something he witnessed at the liquid radioactive waste plant but trailed off, saying, “I don’t know if I am allowed to say any of this stuff — never mind.”

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Chad Walde’s radiation shells hang in the garage of his family’s home. The shells help keep the head still while a patient receives radiotherapy. (Adria Malcolm, special to ProPublica)

Stu Hinnefeld, director of the divis  Stu Hinnefeld, director of the division of compensation analysis and support for NIOSH, said in an interview that those exposed to radiation have a “relatively low” likelihood of developing brain cancer compared with lung and thyroid cancers. He said the institute’s risk models, as a result, require a worker to have a much higher documented exposure to radiation than many of the other cancers in order to get compensation.

The Department of Labor concluded there was just a 2.67 percent chance his cancer was related to his radiation exposure history. His claim was denied on Jan. 14, 2016.

Chad’s dates of employment made him more likely to be rejected than if he had worked at the lab in a prior era. Overall, the Department of Labor has approved nearly 60 percent of claims filed by Los Alamos workers for cancer and beryllium disease. But for workers who started working at the lab after 1996, that figure falls to 45 percent, according to data requested under the Freedom of Information Act.

A spokesperson for the Department of Labor said, “While gaps in past records have existed at some sites, workers in the modern era have more extensive monitoring records. There are no unexplained gaps or readings in this employee’s radiation dose records.”

Still, Chad wanted to appeal. Over the next year, he would undergo another surgery and start experiencing frequent seizures, at one point spending two days in a coma in Texas, where the family had traveled for the twins’ volleyball tournament, when the spasms refused to subside. The family held “Gray Be Gone” fundraisers, referring to the color of the tumor tissue, to raise money to send Chad to MD Anderson for treatment. He also started clinical trials with a doctor in New Mexico.

During that time, Chad learned that he was not the only person at Los Alamos who thought missing records had led the Department of Labor to deny a claim.

For more than a decade, workers at Los Alamos have been telling federal officials that similar data and records problems have prevented them from getting compensation. In June 2005, at a NIOSH forum for the lab’s technical workers’ union, one worker said the lab “had lied and falsified documents right and left … the monitors were turned off, people weren’t qualified to be doing the monitoring, the equipment was never calibrated,” according to meeting minutes.

Another man, an X-ray technician, said his personal radiation badge always showed up with zero contamination.

Falsified radiation data or medical records have been documented at other labs, including in 2003 at Savannah River Site in South Carolina and Hanford Site in Washington state. Radiation records also were falsified at an Ohio nuclear facility in 2013. The Department of Energy fined lab managers in South Carolina and Ohio more than $200,000 each for “willful falsification.”

Los Alamos has not been fined for willful falsification of health records, but it has been cited within the past year for serious safety violations and for failing to check laboratory rooms for toxic chemicals before allowing workers to enter. Internal incident reports from the early 2000s, obtained by NIOSH, described how records had been removed from radiation log books, “deliberate tampering” with nasal swipe samples (used to test if a worker inhaled radioactive particles) and problems with workers not wearing their radiation badges.

Soon after Chad’s diagnosis, another electrician on his crew, Cesario Lopez, told Chad he’d recently had part of his kidney taken out after being diagnosed with cancer. Both Lopez’s mother and uncle, who worked at the lab before him, had been diagnosed with cancer, too. Lopez applied for and was denied compensation by the Department of Labor but has appealed.

Then Chad learned about his friend Gilbert Mondragon. Mondragon started working as an electrician on the fire protection crew in August 1999, three months before Chad. Mondragon was just 19 and from the beginning saw Chad as a mentor. Chad, he said, taught him how to have a good attitude at work and find value in it. That became harder after Mondragon was diagnosed with kidney cancer in the spring of 2014 at the age of 34.

Like Chad, Mondragon’s radiation report showed 14 straight years of zeroes, and only two years, 2006 and 2007, in which his badge took any hits, totaling 67 millirems of radiation over 16 years.

“It’s not like people think it is,” Mondragon said about lab safety. He, like Chad, recalled several times he’d been decontaminated and given new work clothes or boots.

Mondragon believes some of the zeroes are also the result of being told, by his supervisors, to take his badge off when he was doing work in contaminated places. “Now I know better,” he said, “but it’s too late.”

Roark, the lab spokesman, denies workers were ever told to remove their badges, saying its “Radiation Protection Program would never allow, endorse or recommend removing dosimeters to avoid contamination.”

Ken Silver, who sits on a Department of Labor advisory board and is a professor of environmental health at East Tennessee State University, testified before Congressin 2007 that instructing workers to remove their radiation badges was a common practice for “cleanup crews” at Los Alamos in the past. Silver said this practice was based on the belief that if a badge was contaminated, workers would go on to spread radiation throughout the laboratory, which he called a “flimsy assumption.”

Los Alamos officials did not testify at the hearing. But the lab says its rate of injuries has dropped significantly since 2006 and is well below the industry average. The laboratory says it does not track the cause of death for its employees.

Hinnefeld said NIOSH has looked into allegations that workers were told to remove their badges and, “We hear that on occasion.” But he said, in the past, officials have concluded that this wouldn’t affect how the agency reconstructs a worker’s radiation exposure because a single missed reading is unlikely to hold much weight in the overall career of a worker.

Diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma, which his physician has linked to chemical exposure, Mondragon resigned from the lab this winter. The doctors’ visits have consumed his life. His cancer claim, like Chad’s, also was rejected by the Department of Labor, but he was told he would likely be accepted if he were to develop another cancer.

For the last six months, he has relied on the help of an oxygen tank to breathe, trailing a long, green plastic tube wherever he goes…..more https://features.propublica.org/los-alamos/chad-walde-nuclear-facility-radiation-cancer/

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October 27, 2018 - Posted by | health, investigative journalism, PERSONAL STORIES, Reference, USA

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