Contact: Rene Abadie
Date: April 25, 2013
HAMMOND – A Southeastern Louisiana University occupational and environmental health specialist
played an important role in reviewing a site exposure matrix database used to process
health claims by workers involved in the production of nuclear weapons during the
Ephraim Massawe, assistant professor of occupational safety, health and environment, served on the Institute of Medicine/National Academy of Sciences Committee that reviewed the Site Exposure Matrix (SEM), a database used by the Department of Labor (DOL). The SEM is used in processing and adjudicating claims by former employees and contractors of the Department of Energy and Department of Defense who were exposed to radiation and toxic chemicals in nuclear weapons production and those who continue to work in decontaminating nuclear-related waste sites.
It is estimated that more than 600,000 American workers and surviving spouses and families may have claims related to nuclear weapons production.
The committee – made up of experts from different disciplines in occupational medicine, industrial hygiene, epidemiology, biostatistics, risk assessment, and safety and public health – presented its report last month to the Institute of Medicine. The report is intended to improve information on the links between toxic substances and the health effects of occupational exposure to chemicals and radiation, and to support the processing and adjudication of claims.
"These workers were exposed to a wide range of radioactive and other toxic substances at various sites and facilities," said Massawe. "In many cases, because of confidentiality, they may not have known the chemicals they were working with. Some of the exposure may have been relatively benign, but some could have been highly toxic. What is not known, for the most part, are the types of site-specific exposure scenarios, chemicals and other forms of exposures that workers or contractors may have had, which may or may not be reflected in the SEM. In some situations, disease links to toxic substances used at these nuclear processing facilities are difficult to establish or may take many years to establish with confidence."
Massawe said one of the committee recommendations was to use additional databases to complement the SEM and support the work of the DOL.
Massawe said the committee was also charged with assessing the scientific rigor of the disease links in the database and discussing a consistent methodology to complement the database in situations where existing studies are inconclusive.
He said the work originated when the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act was enacted in early 2000 to provide compensation for workers and contractors of the departments of Defense and Energy who claim to have suffered from a disease linked to exposure at one or more of the sites.
The committee met over an 18-month period. It conducted public meetings, at which it heard from the Department of Labor, the National Library of Medicine and former workers and their advocates.
Committee members spent a considerable amount of time assessing the diseases that may have affected the workers, but which had no links in the SEM database, he said.
"In general, we found a lot of strengths in the SEM; it serves as a good, initial resource of information in dealing with claims of exposure and links to medical conditions or health outcomes," Massawe said.
He said the committee made several specific recommendations to the DOL designed to strengthen the database and to provide additional information for claimants about exposure to toxic substances and for claims examiners to assist in the claims process.