(Published January 31, 2001)
At least 20 people who worked on Amchitka Island during an atomic testing program three decades ago have developed types of cancers often associated with radiation, and a new health study is under way that could identify others.
The first results of the health monitoring study of the Amchitka work force were discussed in a daylong meeting in Anchorage on Tuesday. So far, 1,060 former Amchitka workers have been identified, and medical screening exams have been conducted on 43.
Results of those tests are back on 37 people, "and we have detected one compensable case through the screening program, of leukemia," said Dr. Knut Ringen, principal investigator for the Amchitka health study.
About 20 workers already known to have radiation-related cancers are not included in the screening results, Ringen said.
The health survey, funded through the U.S. Department of Energy, began last summer and is expected to continue for at least two more years. Ringen's group expects to complete exams on another 300 people by June 30, and on another 750 by June 30, 2002.
The numbers of cancers detected so far, and the number of people examined, are too small to be statistically significant, medical experts said Tuesday.
A federal law passed last year will provide $150,000 in compensation to Amchitka workers who have developed any of 21 types of cancers, beryllium disease or chronic silicosis believed to be related to their work in the atomic program. The compensation package was included in a defense spending bill passed by Congress last year. Survivors of workers who have died of those diseases may also be eligible.
Workers who can demonstrate they have developed other illnesses related to their work on Amchitka may be eligible for a separate state workers' compensation program.
The United States conducted three underground nuclear tests at Amchitka between 1965 and 1971. Hundreds of people worked on the island as employees of the Atomic Energy Commission or private contractors.
The last explosion, a 5-megaton blast called Cannikin, was the largest underground nuclear test conducted by the United States.
After the tests, the U.S. Navy operated a backscatter radar site there from the late 1980s until the early 1990s.
A major multiagency cleanup project is planned for the island this summer. Crews hired by the Navy, the Energy Department and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will demolish buildings, remove PCB-contaminated sewage sludge, collect lost artillery shells and cap pits of drilling muds used in preparing for the atomic tests.
In addition, the state Department of Environmental Conservation plans to test tissue samples from blue mussels for signs that radiation may be leaching from the blast pits into the ocean.
The physicians working on the Amchitka employee health study will watch the results of the state's tests closely, said Dr. Tim Takaro, a medical consultant working on the project.
If, as Greenpeace and other environmental groups have argued, radionuclides have migrated to the surface of the island or into the surrounding ocean, the chance of exposure for people who worked there are increased.
"The connection between environmental exposure and radiation cancers is very important," Takaro said. Even miners who drilled blast pits or worked on nuclear devices spent only limited amounts of their time on those tasks.
"More of their day was simply living on the island," he said.
The Department of Energy has consistently said tests conducted on the island's surface have detected no radiation releases from the underground tests. The agency hasn't conducted offshore tests since the late 1970s.
Reporter Don Hunter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4349.