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Aid Denied For Ill Nuclear Workers

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WASHINGTON -- Scores of private factories that helped make the nation's first atomic bombs stayed polluted for decades. And thousands of people who later worked in them were exposed to radiation and toxins without knowing it, federal records show.

The government is refusing to compensate workers who say they have illnesses from the latent contamination. It says only those who had jobs while the weapons work was going on are eligible for money.

About 250 chemical plants, steel mills, machine shops and other private factories got classified contracts in the 1940s and '50s to process radioactive and toxic material for atomic bombs for the government. Officials knew contamination at many sites remained above federal safety limits for years after weapons work ended, declassified records on conditions at the factories show. A few stayed polluted into the early '90s.

A sampling of the records reviewed by USA TODAY suggests that at least a few thousand people -- perhaps several times more -- worked at the sites while they remained polluted. The newspaper identified sites in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and a half-dozen other states where scores of workers apparently were exposed.

No health studies have been done to determine how many workers may have been sickened by leftover radiation and toxins at contracting sites.

Most workers were not told of the contamination or its health risks.

A new, yet-to-be released federal study finds about 100 sites where there was a ''high potential'' that leftover radiation was significant enough to raise workers' risks of cancer and other ills. It also finds a ''high potential'' that at least 50 other sites were polluted by beryllium, which causes lung disease.

The findings add a chapter to the nuclear weapons program's legacy of health and environmental damage. They also will complicate government efforts to account for the damage.

After USA TODAY reported in 2000 on illnesses and pollution linked to weapons contracting, Congress made employees at those facilities eligible for $150,000 if they have cancer or other ailments tied to weapons work. But workers who were hired after contracting ended do not qualify.

Peter Turcic, who heads the Labor Department's compensation program, says officials ''have known for some time'' that workers who came to contracting sites in later years were exposed to contamination. The department has no figure on how many have been denied compensation for illnesses.

If Congress expands eligibility, ''we would adjudicate those claims,'' he says. ''We have to administer the law as it was written.''

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© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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