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ORAU serves as co-investigator in study of radiation effects on one million U.S. workers

Workers in radiation caution area

ORAU is playing a key role in the largest-of-its kind study in the United States on the effects of long-term worker exposure to low-dose radiation that encompasses more than one million workers. Launched in 2012, the groups to be studied include uranium and plutonium workers at DOE sites, nuclear weapons test participants, nuclear power plant workers, and industrial radiographers, radiologists, and other medical practitioners.

As part of this study, in 2014, ORAU provided technical expertise in reconstructing radiation doses received by more than 7,000 former workers at the Mound Plant nuclear facility near Dayton, Ohio. The radiation exposures were the result of the extraction process used for polonium-210, a naturally occurring radioactive element used in triggering nuclear weapons.

Among its findings published in Radiation Research, this mortality study documented that death from lung cancers and other types of cancer were not significantly elevated compared to the general population.

Prior to this, the Million Worker Study finalized the project scope to include creating a registry that will capture 70+ years of occupational radiation data, dating from 1942 to present. The precedent-setting study also will include an assessment of internal organ dosage—the first of its kind—that will incorporate internal and external exposure to derive an overall organ dose. The registry database, which was constructed by ORAU, contains exposure data on DOE workers and is an integral part of the epidemiologic studies for which ORAU is also providing support, analysis and expertise.

Information gained through this study is considered a valuable addition to previous research because much of the existing information and standards on radiation exposure are found in studies that followed survivors of the atomic bomb blasts in Japan during World War II, according to Betsy Ellis, Ph.D., ORAU associate director for Occupational Exposure and Worker Health. However, those survivors experienced exposures that were acute and external.

“The effects they experienced may not be similar to those experienced by workers exposed to low-dose radiation over long periods of time,” she said. “You need a large study population in order to see an effect.”

The DOE-sanctioned study, funded by the Office of Science and several other government agencies could take until 2022 to complete.  It will build on information already collected by investigators and government agencies during the past 40 years, including the massive DOE and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) records database ORAU currently manages that includes more than 3.5 million de-identified, active and former workers.

The results of the million worker study in the United States could be combined with results from other countries to add to the global database of knowledge in this public health area.

Partnering with ORAU is the study’s originator John D. Boice Jr., a professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University and president of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements. ORAU is helping to design the study and carry it out. Several agencies—including DOE, NRC, NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency—are teaming with the study as results could provide them with additional insight into how workers are affected by low-dose, long-term exposures to radiation.