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NUMEC used Apollo, Parks as guinea pigs

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By Mary Ann Thomas and Ramesh Santanam,
Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2002
 

If you lived near the former NUMEC nuclear fuel plants in Apollo and Parks in the 1960s, you were part of studies to determine how much nuclear fallout was safe for humans.

You just didn't know it.

And neither may have the workers inside the plants, who were studied to see just how much radiation the human body could absorb.

A review of thousands of federal documents - many of them declassified only in recent years - shows the company and the government used the coincidence of the plants, which routinely spewed radioactive smoke and gases through hundreds of smoke stacks, and the proximity of residents to conduct the studies.

Obviously, not everyone was thrilled to be the subject of a study, especially a fallout study involving communities.

The two prevailing thoughts are:

"We were just guinea pigs," said Jack Balogna, an environmental activist and long-time Parks resident.

Leechburg council President Tony Defilippi has another take: "I looked at it as a measure the company was taking for public safety."

Still, if the studies were conducted to check safety, another environmental activist, Cindee Virostek of Apollo said, "Then we were guinea pigs."

Defilippi, who has been on council for 35 years, doesn't recall any official notification that his town was checked for radioactive fallout.

Such was the nature of studies and experiments conducted by private companies and the government during the Cold War.

The major ethical dilemma of the experiments, whether on workers or the public, was consent, according to Dan Guttman, executive director of the President's Advisory Committee on Human Radiation experiments. He is an attorney and fellow at Johns Hopkins.

President Clinton established The Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments in the mid-1990s to collect and release information on human radiation experiments.

Extreme examples included feeding retarded children radioactive iron and injecting hospital patients with plutonium.

Private companies, such as NUMEC, typically didn't set up such ghoulish experiments, but they used what was around them - workers and the environment - to learn more about detecting radiation and learning the thresholds of contamination.

"They were experiments of opportunity," Guttman said.

In the mid-1960s, NUMEC established a study for fallout, distributing about 26 fallout collectors in and near the community of Apollo.

The study, "Environmental Monitoring Near a Multi-Stack Uranium Plant," by Roger Caldwell and Ronald Crosby, was conducted to demonstrate permissible radioactivity concentrations beyond the site boundaries of a nuclear fuel plant.

At that time, the plant had about 124 stacks releasing radioactive contamination and other pollutants.

One of the study's findings: "Collectors located near well-traveled roads always give higher results than those away from roads."

But what were the results of the tests• Few seem to know.

Virostek tried to get the results for 12 years without luck.

"I saw documents referring to the study, but never the results," she said. "I was upset that the government could cover up something that would have to do with the residents of Apollo."

Some of the results were secured by attorney Fred Baron, who represents about 400 people claiming illness or property damage from the Apollo plant.

"It was a study done to show support for a variance permit - to exceed the AEC regulations for effluents from the stacks," Baron said. "The study didn't give you much information. It showed rapid dispersion of material from NUMEC facility."

In essence, NUMEC studies focused on proving to the government on different occasions that the pollution from its Apollo plant didn't overexpose the public to radioactive materials.

"But never, during operations was there adequate testing of what was being emitted into the community," Baron said.

The extent of the studies will most likely stay unknown.

"Private contractor sites like NUMEC fell off the map," Guttman said. "That's the difficulty of the NUMEC situation. Who knows what the heck happened at this place• We (the government) did a crummy job of keeping records for private companies."

Here are some experiments of opportunity at NUMEC:

  • When a glove box - a contained box in which workers handle highly radioactive isotopes via gloves permanently attached to the box - blew up at a Parks Site laboratory, worker Matthew Chobanian of New Kensington was sprayed in the face with acid and plutonium.

    He was wrapped in plastic, so as not to spread radiation. According to a newspaper account of court documents, Chobanian's contamination levels were very high.

    His condition was studied by the University of Pittsburgh School of Health.

    Although Chobanian's case was included in a paper, "The Measurement and Management of Insoluble Plutonium in Man," the school focused on dealing with an industrial accident, said Dr. Niel Wald, a physician and professor of environmental and occupational health at Pitt.

    "Our role was essentially to deal with any individual exposure problem," Wald said. "We were not doing population studies. We dealt with the management of accident exposures."

    Chobanian settled out court with Babcock & Wilcox to receive $12,000 per year, tax-free, for the rest of his life.

  • A former health and safety official at NUMEC studied how the bodies of workers digested nuclear contamination. "The Detection of Insoluble Alpha Emitters in the Lung" by Roger Caldwell, studied 126 cases, and concluded that feces could provide better indications of contamination than urine. The paper is still referenced in other health studies today.

  • Soil samples were taken more than once from the environment near the plutonium plant in Parks in the 1960s by an agent for a federal program. NUMEC was one site that was part of the Atomic Energy Commission's "Independent Measurements Program." The program studied the environmental effects from plutonium and other nuclear fuel facilities. Results and additional information on the program and NUMEC's role were never publicly released. Attempts by the Valley News Dispatch to secure the early studies were unsuccessful.

  • NUMEC workers were part of a registry for nuclear workers to study their health throughout their lives. The federal government has tracked nuclear workers' health, and in some case, analyzed the corpses of workers. Again, results of the ongoing study are not available.

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