To call conditions at the old Metal Hydrides plant dangerous is a vast understatement.
During the 1940s, employees at the Beverly plant were exposed to massive amounts of radioactive material while working on part of the Manhattan Project, the U.S. government’s top-secret plan to develop the world’s first atomic weapon. (The work was so secret its ultimate intent was kept from the workers themselves.)
The plant’s 100 or so workers converted uranium oxide into uranium metal powder, which was used in the first reactor that helped produce the atomic bomb. Metal Hyrdides also melted and recast uranium metal, processes that likely exposed workers to contamination from radium, radon and uranium, according to an August report by federal research scientist Samuel Glover.
Workers routinely scooped uranium powder into tins using their bare hands, according to Glover’s report. Material was thrown outside and allowed to burn. Every few weeks, metal left outside in leaching liquid would spontaneously ignite.
Roger Demers, who worked at the plant for almost a decade, used to remove his work clothes on his porch before he entered his home. His daughter, Mary Lennon, said it wasn’t because he was afraid to make a mess.
“I think he was worried about what was on his clothes,” Lennon told Salem News reporter Paul Leighton last week.
Effective safeguards at Metal Hydrides and similar plants across the United States were obviously few and far between. Yet for years, the government has made it difficult for surviving workers and their families to get compensation for the health effects of working for so long under such dangerous conditions.
Demers died of brain and lung cancer in 1991. Lennon and her sister, Kathy Demers of Salem, applied for compensation from the government last year but were denied after a computer determined there was a less than 50 percent chance Demers’ cancer was caused by working at Metal Hydrides.
The computer’s number was insultingly specific — there was a 44.62 percent chance working for years around uranium and other radioactive material contributed to the illness, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
The software uses information gleaned from employee’s medical records and radiation monitoring reports. In the case of Metal Hydrides, however, those monitoring reports were worse than useless.
Glover’s report has provided ample evidence there wasn’t much safety work or radiation monitoring going on in Beverly.
So we are pleased U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius has recommended to Congress that Metal Hydrides employees from the 1940s who were later diagnosed with cancer can be granted a special status that could lead to as much as $150,000 in compensation.
The change means former employees or their surviving family members no longer have to prove their cancer was caused by working at Metal Hybrides — they only need to prove they worked there between 1942 and 1948.
It also means the government has finally recognized the work being done at Metal Hyrdides and other plants on behalf of the country was incredibly dangerous, despite the fact that little monitoring of that danger was done at the time.
Whether they knew it or not, many of the workers at Metal Hydrides sacrificed their health, and possibly their lives, for their country. It’s long past time for the country to acknowledge that sacrifice.