Discounted casualties

April 30th, 2000
7. Health Damage

Cancer, joint pain, and other maladies
Employees and residents

A weekend morning in Tennessee. From the window of a third-floor apartment suffused with bright sunlight, downtown Jonesborough looked quiet and sleepy.

"All the churches and stores are old, but we like the way they look." Gazing out at the street, Paul Hasko (55) stroked his faithful dog sprawled happily near the window. On the days he goes out to pick up the town's trash, he leaves very early and drives a big garbage truck until sundown.

"Recently, my joint pain has gotten worse. I have vision problems, and my whole body is out of whack. All this because of the DU I breathed at Aerojet Ordnance Tennessee (AOT)."

Discolored green tissue

Born in Chicago and raised sourthern California, Hasko moved to the south in 1979 to take care of his wife's parents, who live in Bristol, Virginia. He got a job at Tennessee Nuclear Specialites (now, AOT) in March the next year. In May 1981, after making DU penetrators for more than a year, he joined a strike demanding a better working environment.

"The kleenex we blew our noses into was turning green because of DU. The particles clinging to our work clothes wouldn't even come off in the wash." Not long after starting this job, Hasko became aware of respiratory problems.

Negotiations with the company broke down. He lost his job and nearly all his income. His wife couldn't understand his condition, and they divorced in 1983. It was 1986 before he was allowed to return to his workplace, thanks to a settlement arbitrated by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Looking back, he laments, "I thought the environment would have improved in that time. That's why I went back. The steady income and health insurance were attractive."

Tossing 250 sets of work clothes

Compared to five years earlier, the work environment had indeed improved. Nevertheless, accidents and inadequate protection exposed many employees to radiation doses exceeding regulated limits. At one point, even after laundering, 250 sets of worker uniforms were found to be too "hot" to wear and discarded.

A male worker came down with leukemia after working at AOT for six and a half years. Hasko was one of many workers complaining of joint pain and respiratory ailments. The company saw Hasko as a troublemaker not only because of his physical problems, but because he pointed out the lack of safety measures. In 1992 he left his job again.

Some of his fellow workers in 1981 are now struggling with cancer. "A couple in their forties who live near the factory both have cancer. Plenty of other people in the area have some kind of illness or other. There's a high school nearby, too. I think an epidemiological study ought to be done on the graduating classes."

Even so, Hasko says that most people who live in the community still don't know what AOT produces. Very few have knowledge about DU or what radiation can do to the body. Jonesborough lacks the type of grassroots movement struggling against Starmet Corporation in Concord, Massachusetts.

"In 1993 a Gulf War veteran named Carol Picou was complaining about her problems on TV. Joint pain, narrow field of vision, headache.... It was so much like me, I could hardly believe it." After that, Hasko began supporting the local Gulf War veterans and going to other states to talk about his experiences.

In September 1999, 18 years after the strike, the NLRB handed down its ruling. "The NLRB found that AOT was not a safe place to work and that the workers were over-exposed to radiation. The company was ordered to pay about 100 workers back-pay with interest. This was great news for us, but AOT refuses to pay and is taking the ruling to appellate court."

Pride in contributing to the national defense

I requested permission to visit AOT to learn their side of the story and their opinion about the NLRB decision, but my request was denied.

I found a 1998 company brochure that boasts, "To date, Aerojet has produced nearly 30 million high quality large- and medium-caliber finished penetrators." It also stated, "Depleted uranium offers performance proven during Operation Desert Storm." And, "AOT is extremely proud of its contribution to national defense."

The problems raised by Hasko and others who lost their health and well-being to DU particles are evidently not getting through to AOT.
Paul Hasko (left) visits the home of a Gulf War veteran to discuss the health problems each is suffering. (outskirts of Jonesborough, Tennessee)
Paul Hasko (left) visits the home of a Gulf War veteran to discuss the health problems each is suffering. (outskirts of Jonesborough, Tennessee)

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