up after the Cold War
It happened several times a week for more than 25 years. A truck
or a train would roll up to the gate of the Iowa Army Ammunitions
Plant near Burlington, Iowa, and a security guard would supervise
the unloading of hundreds of sealed 55-gallon drums, shipments sent
from places like Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Rocky Flats, Colo.
From 1968 to 1973, Bob Anderson was one of those guards. He would
check the serial numbers on the containers against those on his
manifest, climbing on top of one drum to read the label on another,
squeezing between two to get to a third, pushing them out of his
way, tipping them on their sides, rolling them like logs on the
ground. Afterward, safety personnel would come with Geiger counters
and hold them above the drums, which contained plutonium and uranium,
material for nuclear weapons secretly manufactured at the plant
in an area known as Line 1.
In 1987, Anderson had exploratory surgery at University of Iowa
Hospitals and Clinics and was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins
lymphoma. The oncologist suggested Andersons cancer could
have been caused by radiologic exposure. But no one could be sure.
Then evidence began to trickle in. Anderson heard that another
guard had the same disease. Friends told him about two other former
employees, both safety workers, who had developed non-Hodgkins
lymphoma. So Anderson wrote a letter to Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, asking
why the government health program for workers at other nuclear weapons
plants wasnt helping those from the Burlington plant.
As a result of Andersons initiative and Harkins fast
action, in August 2000, the College of Public Health at The University
of Iowa received a Department of Energy grant to identify and survey
the health of everyone who came in contact with Line 1. The Burlington
Atomic Energy Commission Plant Former Worker Program is a mammoth
project, led by Laurence Fuortes, an epidemiologist and occupational
health specialist in the College of Public Health.
Fuortes and his team were asked to locate thousands of people who
might have been affected, then interview, screen, counsel, and refer
them for appropriate health care and/or compensation.
Their first task was to enter data from 36,000 index cardsthe
only records the plant kept of its employeesinto an electronic
database. Of those, only about 4,000 were Line 1 workers; most of
the others worked on assembly lines that produced conventional weapons.
But there was some crossover. And many individuals, such as security,
laundry, and janitorial workers, serviced the entire facility. In
the first year of the grant, investigators followed up on the majority
of living Line 1 workers.
The second challenge investigators faced was convincing former
workers to speak freely. Patriotic, hardworking, and loyal, thousands
of employees had signed secrecy agreements promising they would
never disclose anything about their work. And for decades, they
"We had to go in and convince them that the DOE had released
them from their pledge," says Kristina Venzke, project coordinator
for the former worker program.
Meanwhile, Fuortes held a series of public meetings to inform area
residents about the survey and answer their questions about the
health risks they faced. The situation in Burlington became more
and more complex as investigators found that workers had been exposed
to a multitude of hazards in addition to radiation.
"It could be people who were doing construction and maintenance
of the facility where asbestos could be an issue," Fuortes
says. "It could be people who were exposed to high explosives,
the things that went around the fissionable material. It could be
people exposed to radiation or to beryllium or to epoxy or glues
Eventually, researchers in the College of Public Health will attempt
to contact all 36,000 people who worked for the Burlington plant
from 1949 to 1975, when nuclear bombs and artillery shells were
assembled there. At this point, only Line 1 workers with certain
medical concerns are eligible for the DOEs Energy Employees
Occupational Illness Compensation Program. But Fuortes and his team
are compiling all the data, trying to refer others to appropriate
health care providers.
The Universitys College of Public Health was created in 1999
to support community health in Iowa, in the Midwest, and around
the world. According to James Merchant, dean of the college, the
survey and Fuortes work in Burlington typifies the mission
and the wide range of research in the College of Public Health.
"There are literally thousands of people who worked at or
lived near the Burlington plant and now have concerns about possible
health hazards," Merchant says. "Dr. Fuortes investigation
of potential hazards and assessment of workers health will
provide the community, and the public at large, with much-needed
information about the possible long-term health effects associated
with the plant."