.News Update 9/26/08

Untimely Deaths of Sandia National Laboratories Employees

September 26, 2008

The existence of radioactive, toxic and hazardous materials in office buildings, as well as a lack of safety precautions during the cleanup of such materials at Sandia National Laboratories, may be affecting the death and sickness rate among its employees.

The average age of death among Sandia employees is 50 years of age, which is significantly younger than the national average of 78.1 years. The cancer rate is larger among Sandia employees as well. Seventeen percent of all deaths among Sandia employees are from cancer, whereas the national average is 0.8%. The data was collected between 2001 and 2008.

Employees think that exposure to radiation and toxic waste in the Sandia office buildings significantly contributed to their illnesses. Some offices are 30 to 50 years old and were located in converted laboratories that had previously handled the assembly of nuclear weapons. One building complex of particular concern is Building 807. The four-story U-shaped building complex included Buildings 805 and 806, which were built in 1966.

Beginning in 1999, over 50 current and former Sandia employees working in Building 807 filed complaints of respiratory and neurological illnesses. Private physicians of the employees often reported higher levels of contaminants than the results reported by Sandia Medical Center.

In response, Sandia conducted three independent studies. The first study showed that there were "no current health hazards" in the buildings. But the study was not conducted according to standard health study procedures. Sandia used a small group of healthy employee volunteers, so that the results did not adequately represent the entire risk to the Building 807 workers. Though the study indicated that the buildings were safe for offices, Sandia still vacated several rooms in Building 807 due to suspicion that they were contaminated.

A later report in 2006 by Shaw Environmental, Inc. showed that Building 807 offices contained mercury and radioactive material contamination. Steps were taken to remove the radioactive, hazardous and toxic contaminants, including americium, barium, tritium, depleted uranium, arsenic and PCBs. Large quantities of asbestos were also present throughout the building.

During the waste removal process, very few precautions were taken to protect employees working in other parts of the building against the contaminants. The offices were not vacated. Odors and dust were circulated throughout the building because the common ventilation system was not sealed off. The elevator that transported employees was also used to move contaminated materials out of the building. Finally, in 2007, after continued complaints by employees, safety measures were implemented. Building 807 was demolished earlier this year.

But there has been sparse oversight of the cleanup and demolition. They were not monitored by the City of Albuquerque Air Quality Division or by the New Mexico Environment Department. More regulatory oversight would add protection against future contamination and employee sickness.

Dave McCoy, of Citizen Action New Mexico, has been addressing the lax regulatory oversight of Sandia operations. He said, "It seems clear to me that Sandia National Laboratories need to change a culture driven by corporate profits to one of protection of the health of its employees, public health and the environment."

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