By: Seth Ellingsworth
Every day I wake up not being able to breathe. Have you ever been so sick you thought you were going to die? Even welcomed it if it would end the suffering? I have. Others that worked at Tank Farms have. My son even asked me if I was dying. I thought I was, but I didn’t tell him that. It is a terrible feeling when you realize that at 35 you may never live a normal life again. It makes it even worse to find out that the people you counted on to protect you, the people you worked for, that you trusted, knew about the risks and could have protected you.
I begin every day by using my breathing medication through a nebulizer. Every few hours after the first breathing treatment I depend on taking six different medications throughout the day just to be able to breathe. My exposure to chemicals at the tank farms ruined my life. I believed that the people I worked for cared for my safety and health. I was wrong. When they told us we were safe, I believed them. I don’t have a choice now, I have to live with my health problems because of my chemical exposure, but I can warn other workers about the hazards. Workers need to understand that they need to advocate for their own health and safety.
I started working at Hanford in 2003. My job was to monitor for radiation and contamination. This is done to make sure that radioactive material is not spreading to areas that it is not supposed to be. I would do routine checks in the farms as well as check equipment coming out of the farms to make sure it didn’t get any contamination on it. The other part of my job was to help prevent other workers from getting contaminated or overexposed to radiation.
I trusted the people I worked for. We were constantly being told how safe it was through training, pre-jobs, classes, and daily reports. The narrative was always the same, no one ever gets sick from the chemical exposures. Everyone is cleared to return to work when they do get exposed. None of the training we received about chemical vapors talked about workers getting sick. Instead just the opposite. Not only are we lied to about being exposed to chemicals on a daily basis, but the company also goes out of its way to make us believe everything is fine.
When you’re told day after day, week after week, year after year that you’re safe why wouldn’t you believe them? What you’re not told is that returned to work does not mean that the person is not sick or that they ever did return to work. What you’re not told is that a lot of the affected sick workers are intimidated and threatened to not talk about their exposure. What we don’t hear about as workers, is that many of the sick are at home because they can no longer work. When the Industrial Hygiene technicians monitor the air for chemicals we are always told they didn’t find anything. We were not told that they were only checking for a few of the over 1,500 chemicals present in the tanks. We were not told about all the sick workers that were exposed before me.
I’ve talked to dozens of affected workers. Over and over, I hear the same story: workers get exposed, the company denies it, and the company never knows what chemicals are in the air because they refused to do the proper surveying and sampling. Workers have a hard time finding a doctor who can treat them (doctors here do not want to go against Hanford), and then to top it off many workers have to fight for years to get their medical benefits. Many workers are too sick to work and do not receive compensation resulting in financial ruin.
The problems at Hanford have been ignored for far too long. Our own community is ignoring the problems. It has taken Hanford Challenge, a non-profit from Seattle, to fight for our safety. DOE will not even step in. When a vapor exposure occurs and results in injury like it did for me, it doesn’t count. DOE has given the company that made us sick, the second highest safety rating in the DOE complex. It is like we don’t exist. It’s like we don’t matter at all.
I can’t stand by and let this happen to anyone else. I’m doing everything I can to help stop it. I’m involved with the website tankfarmersmatter.com to help spread awareness about the problems we face at Hanford’s tank farms. I’m furious about what has happened to so many people like myself. How can the people in charge, sitting in offices safe from the hazard of chemical vapor exposure, ignore us and deny our injuries when they happen? This is why I chose to speak out. This is why I will not stop until something is done to stop the exposures. It is unacceptable for anyone else to get sick from vapors. I don’t want anyone else to have to go through the pain I went through.
The people who run Hanford lied to me and told me I was safe. They put my health at risk because they didn’t want to spend the money to protect me from chemical exposures. My health was just a business decision that I didn’t get a choice in. I would like to know how much longer this will be allowed to continue. I would like our elected representatives to stop ignoring us. When will the people we elected to deal with issues like this do something? They have known about it and continue to stand by and allow it to happen. What is it going to take to stop allowing workers to be poisoned by chemicals on the Hanford site? When will it be enough?
More coverage of Seth’s story from Suzanne Frame of King 5, May 20, 2016
Letter: Hanford companies deny health hazards and continue to make workers sick | Tri-City Herald, September 28, 2016