The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

“Poisoned workers and contaminated sites”
– newspaper reports

Jun 17, 2002

With grand fanfare, the government this week announced an arrest in the war on terrorism and foiling a plot to explode a “dirty” bomb, that is, one exploded containing radioactive materials.

This may be another invented story to make the administration seem to be on the ball, since no bomb was made, no materials gathered, no plans drawn up, etc. And the government itself says it doesn’t intend to try the “suspect.” But the fact remains that many people in this country have already been victims of “dirty bombs” carrying radioactive materials long before Al Qaeda had ever been heard of.

It wasn’t a foreign enemy that exposed us to nuclear radiation – the U.S. government did the dirty work of contaminating us. And covering up the facts!

After dropping bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S. government began to contract with private companies to produce the materials needed to make nuclear weapons. There were at least 300 companies thus contracted, working in 25 states, in plants in cities throughout the country – in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Brooklyn, Dallas, Richmond, Baltimore, Cleveland, St. Louis, among others. Some of these corporations still exist today – big companies like W.R. Grace, Dow Chemical, G.E., Westinghouse, DuPont; some were smaller and disappeared. All had contracts which required their workers to handle uranium, plutonium, thorium and beryllium.

These radioactive materials were known to cause fatal cancers, leukemia and kidney disease – and in the case of beryllium, smothering to death due to particles in the lungs.

In 1948, for example, a doctor with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, which ran the weapons program, visited Harshaw Chemical in Cleveland. There the radioactive waste was measured at 200 times the safe limits. The doctor wrote a report documenting severe hazards, but workers there were never told of any hazards. On the contrary, they were deliberately lied to and told that no unusual hazards existed. In a 1949 survey of 648 workers at three different sites, two of every five workers were exposed to at least five times the safe limits and one in ten workers was exposed to more than 100 times the safe limits for radioactive dust.

The Atomic Energy Commission did send memos to top program officials telling them not to alarm employees. The memos make it clear that the government and company officials wanted to avoid “baseless [insurance] claims and complicate collective bargaining.”

The workers doing nuclear weapons production were not followed for health problems. Many have since died and most are long past retirement. A number of the companies no longer exist. But the facilities where radioactive waste went into the air, the water and the workers’ bodies still exist.

Not until late in the Clinton administration – 50 years after the work began – did the U.S. government begin to admit that workers at government facilities deserved medical assistance and compensation for exposure to dangerous radiation in nuclear weapons production. Of course, most had already died and compensation payments were very low. And workers at private companies doing the work were not included in the coverage.

This U.S. government took 50 years to admit that U.S. soldiers were exposed to dangerous amounts of radiation in weapons testing in the 1940s and 1950s. This same government is only now barely admitting that its nuclear weapons-producing program made workers sicken and die from cancer at rates far above average.

This is the same government which told a generation of U.S. soldiers that the Agent Orange used throughout the war in Viet Nam did not harm them or their children. It is the same government which has denied that Gulf War syndrome even exists, some ten years after soldiers began showing symptoms.

This is not a government we can trust. Whether it speaks of foreign enemies or its own supposedly benign activities, the lies roll out one after the other.