Pathologist Heads Effort to Get Compensation for Ex-Plant Workers

A pathologist who helped some Mallinckrodt workers and their families get compensation for radiation-induced cancers is spearheading a similar effort for former workers at two Metro-East plants once involved in the nation’s atomic-weapons program.

“We think we’ve got an excellent case,” said Dr. Daniel McKeel Jr., a retired associate professor of pathology at Washington University. He and others are attempting what he called a “blanket approach” after a federal program has not yet resolved most of the individual claims filed by workers at the two plants.

The plants are the former Dow Chemical plant in Madison and General Steel Castings, later General Steel Inc., in Granite City. Although many workers say they weren’t told what they were making, both sites handled radioactive materials starting in the 1950s and appear on a government list of plants used to make atomic weapons.

“We noticed a lot of people at our plant had cancer – an extremely high rate,” said Don Thompson, a Granite City councilman and former Dow worker. Thompson, 69, recalled handling thorium, a radioactive material, with bare hands.He developed squamous cell cancer and had his bladder removed in 1996. His individual claim has been on file without result for four years, he said.Workers and their survivors will meet twice within the next week to gather testimonials like Thompson’s about working conditions and illnesses they’ve suffered.

The federal program to atone for the lack of safety provisions at such plants was launched in 2000. Almost 73,000 workers or their survivors have filed claims, according to the Labor Department. The program provides $150,000 for workers who developed one of 22 types of cancer or lung disease and worked about a full year at a plant. Up to $100,000 in medical expenses may also be awarded.

As of Wednesday, 596 former workers from these two plants or their relatives have applied. But claims have been paid to just four of them. And those payments might be for illness attributable to work done at other sites, said Joe Kusmierczak, an attorney at the East Alton law firm of Simmons Hanly Conroy, which is representing the workers for free.

Larry Elliott, the director of the federal office that attempts to calculate the level of radiation exposure for these workers, said his office is dealing with a backlog.”I appreciate the frustration claimants have as they try to work through this process,” he said. “It does take a long time for dose reconstruction in some of these cases.”If government analysts can’t determine the level of radiation exposure, compensation can be awarded to all of a plant’s workers who qualify.That is the so-called blanket approach that McKeel and others are shooting for.

McKeel said he is hoping an application will be ready by August. A year ago, the federal government awarded compensation to a group of workers exposed to radioactive material between 1942 and 1948 at the main Mallinckrodt Chemical Co. plant in downtown St. Louis. Mallinckrodt uranium products were shipped to both Dow and General Steel.

The General Steel site closed in 1974 and was purchased by Granite City Steel. The Dow plant has changed hands a few times.McKeel said the Mallinckrodt investigation revealed that some General Steel workers used high-powered X-ray devices known as betatrons to scan uranium cylinders. The cylinders and the X-ray machines would have exposed workers to harmful radiation over time, McKeel said.