In November 1981 , two atomic workers at Chalk River, Ontario, were granted full pensions because of cancers which they had contracted as a result of radiation exposure on the job. "We acknowledge that it was probable that their cancers were caused by working here," said a statement issued by Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories, despite the fact that neither of the men had ever been over-exposed to radiation.
Thomas Arnold was awarded a pension of $1335 a month by the Ontario Workman's Compensation Board (WCB), on the advice of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL). Arnold credits AECL with doing all the work to get him the pension. He developed lymph cancer during his 28 years of work as a reactor maintenance man at Chalk River.
The other case involves a 31-year veteran of Chalk River who died of leukemia shortly before the WCB granted his compensation. His widow was awarded $490 a month for life, the maximum permitted under WCB rules. A spokesman for the WCB said there is a third claim pending from Chalk River over a case of skin cancer. Meanwhile, a 50 year-old Pembroke man has also filed a claim with the WCB . Raymond Paplinskie, who has lost an eye and most of the skin on one side of his face, says that he got cancer of the sinuses from doing nuclear cleanup work following a 1958 reactor accident at Chalk River.
AECL spokesman Hal Tracy explained that the nuclear industry in Canada accepts the theory that there is no safe threshold limit for radiation exposure; hence, it must also be accepted that any dose at all has the potential for harm, and that eventually there will be some evidence of this harm. "Possibly there will be more cancers among our workers," said Mr. Tracy. "These first cases weren't a total surprise. Deaths due to radiation exposure had been predicted. We've always believed there was an increased risk."
Robert Potvin, a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB), which regulates the Canadian nuclear industry, said that the two cases of compensation have "no implications" form the safety standpoint. They "simply confirm the long-standing expectation" that nuclear workers run a higher-than-usual risk of cancer due to years of exposure to low-level radiation, he said.
"Our limits admit that any dose can increase the risk and, on that premise, cancer deaths are not unexpected." He added that "studies say the average risk under these limits is comparable to the risk in an industry with a high safety standard -- for example, manufacturing shoes."
A spokesman for Ontario Hydro, Richard Furness, said in an interview with the Toronto Star that "no one has ever died or suffered lost-time injuries due to radiation at a Hydro nuclear plant -- or any other Canadian nuclear facility." When told about the AECL acknowledgement of two cases at Chalk River, Furness remarked: "Oh. Well, there goes that record."
Ontario Hydro's Health and Safety Director Bob Wilson said it was time the public recognized the facts. For every hundred million hours of work done under radiation exposure (at no more than the permissible limits) about 2 to 4 otherwise unexpected cancer cases will develop, Wilson said. "We have never said a radiation worker is without risk," he insisted, but added that radiation workers are 10 to 100 times less likely to die from work than such people as fishermen, forestry workers, miners or even Hydro linemen.
But a well-informed AECL worker told the Toronto Star that "this is going to open an intense debate about safety. What can we expect from all the other live or dead cancer victims who have long-term low-level radiation exposure at AECL or Ontario Hydro? It could mean that the whole system of predictions that five rems of radiation was an acceptable dose for workers is dead wrong."
Critics of the nuclear industry have argued that the industry's predictions could prove fatally wrong for many more workers than anticipated. It can take 20 years or more for cancers to develop from low-level long-term radiation exposure, and at least 250 Hydro workers and about the same number at AECL are coming up for the 20-year turning point.
In fact, a special report on the medical effects of alpha radiation published by the AECB in September 1982 indicates that the present permissible exposure limits could result in a quadrupling of the risk of lung cancer deaths among uranium miners, whether they smoke or not. This conclusion is based on actual mortality figures among uranium miners from Colorado, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, Canada, and elsewhere.
REFERENCESCanadian Occupational Health and Safety News, v.5, n.10, March 15, 1982.
Canadian Environmental Law Association Newsletter, 1982.
Toronto Star, March 4, 5, 6, 7, 1982.
Globe and Mail, March 5, 11, 1982.
Risk Estimates for the Health Effects of Alpha Radiation, INFO-0081, AECB, Sept. 1982.
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