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University of Iowa News Release

Jan. 6, 2006

UI Researchers To Examine Health Of Iowa Munitions Workers

Researchers in the University of Iowa College of Public Health are beginning a new comprehensive health study to determine whether conventional weapons workers at the Iowa Army Ammunition Plant (IAAAP) near Burlington have elevated rates of death or adverse health effects such as cancer compared to other workers.

The IAAAP Munitions Workers Study, a congressionally mandated study funded by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), is being led by principal investigator Laurence J. Fuortes, M.D., professor of occupational and environmental health, and co-principal investigator R. William Field, Ph.D., associate professor of occupational and environmental health and epidemiology. It is one of the largest health studies ever undertaken of workers in the U.S. munitions industry.

This study of DOD contract workers is separate from a Department of Energy Former Worker Program at IAAAP, which provided health screenings and compensation to employees adversely affected by their work with atomic weapons at the plant. There is no compensation program associated with the DOD study.

"The health of workers in the munitions industry has been a concern over many years, yet relatively few studies have examined the health risks associated with munitions work," Fuortes said. "Throughout the munitions industry, workers are likely exposed to a variety of toxic agents, including explosives, solvents, metals, depleted uranium, asbestos, radiographic sources and numerous others." 

The UI investigators will examine the mortality rates for former workers at the Middletown, Iowa, munitions facility and compare them to both state and federal reference populations. Similarly, researchers will analyze Iowa cancer records to determine whether IAAAP workers are at higher risk for overall cancer incidence as well as certain site-specific cancers such as cancer of the lung, liver, trachea and leukemia compared to unexposed workers. 

"In some cases, workers at IAAAP may have been exposed to chemicals or metals before it was clearly known that these substances had the potential to cause adverse health outcomes," Fuortes said. "We anticipate that this study will provide insights into whether or not the work performed at IAAAP resulted in higher mortality or cancer incidence rates in this population."

In addition, Fuortes said, some current and former workers at the IAAAP have expressed concerns about potential exposure to beryllium, a hard, lightweight metal widely used in industrial processes. Although beryllium is not reported to have been a component in the production of conventional munitions at IAAAP, beryllium-containing tools such as hammers, punches, and chisels were in use prior to being phased out beginning in 2002. Some IAAAP workers may have been exposed to beryllium from grinding or sanding these tools, potentially putting them at risk for a serious and sometimes fatal lung illness called chronic beryllium disease. 

As part of the beryllium study, the UI researchers will also test a subset of current and former workers who represent different job categories, work practices and job descriptions at IAAAP to assess possible beryllium exposure, and to determine if cases of chronic beryllium disease have occurred in the IAAAP workforce.

"Findings from this study may provide information on previously unrecognized hazards at the IAAAP and at similar munitions facilities operating over the same time period throughout the United States," Fuortes said.

The IAAAP is located about 10 miles west of Burlington in southeast Iowa. Employment at the 19,000-acre facility currently stands at approximately 850, but it is estimated that the workforce, servicing conventional weapons' lines, varied from approximately 15,000 around World War II, to about 7,500 during the Korean conflict, to 5,500 during the Vietnam conflict. Employment at IAAAP remained around 2,000 through most of the 1980s.

Built between 1941 and 1943, the IAAAP has produced conventional missile warheads and a variety of large caliber tank ammunitions, mines, mortars, artillery, demolition charges and weapons' component parts. In addition, it is designated as the Midwest Area Demilitarization Facility for disposing of old and/or obsolete ammunition.

In 1947, the IAAAP was designated as the first plant in the nation to assemble atomic weapons for the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). For nearly three decades, conventional and nuclear weapons were manufactured at the plant under separate U.S. DOD and AEC contracts. In 1975, production of nuclear weapons was terminated and transferred to Amarillo, Texas.

STORY SOURCE: The University of Iowa College of Public Health, Office of Communications, 4261 Westlawn, Iowa City, Iowa 52242.

MEDIA CONTACT: Dan McMillan, 319-335-6835, daniel-mcmillan@uiowa.edu