RICHLAND, Wash. - Some people who worked in the tank farms at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation have developed a strange brain disease. A handful have come forward. But those who have worked with these patients believe more tank farm workers will develop the same symptoms in the coming years.
Barbara and Gary Sall on their last Valentine's Day together. Barbara believes her husband's death was caused by his work and exposure to chemicals in Hanford's tank farms. Photo courtesy of Barbara Sall
The night before her husband's funeral Barbara Sall wasn't attending a wake or morning with family. Instead, she sat in the front row of a community meeting about the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
"I look back now and I hate the day that he decided that he was going to move to the tank farms," Sall said.
Hanford's tank farms are where the federal government stores the leftovers from plutonium production during World War II and the Cold War. The sludge is radioactive chemicals and solvents.
Gary Sall was a carpenter out there. And his wife says he came into close contact with that witches' brew often.
"In the beginning how they would check to see if they could work around that tank that day they would get down and actually smell the tank. The fumes from the tank. That's how they had them check to see."
She continued, "This was years ago. They didn't know. The workers didn't know it was harmful."
Barbara Sall says over the course of eight years she lost her husband Gary bit by bit. First, the carpenter couldn't cut boards right. Eventually, he couldn't work a toilet.
It turns out her husband had something called chronic toxic encephalopathy. It's a brain disorder that's been linked to chemical exposure. The symptoms can be different for everyone, but can cause memory loss, changes in personality, fatigue and seizures.
"I don't think we've seen the last of these individuals," said Dr. Brian Campbell, a neurologist in Spokane.
He treats several patients who worked at Hanford. He says it's the older workers who are most at risk.
"When we look at the employees who have worked there and other environments that involve other environmental toxins for a long period of time, I think those are the individuals that are likely to show up as symptomatic," Dr. Campbell said. "Than perhaps someone that's just recently been in the field with better protective gear."
Hundreds of people showed up to Gary Sall's funeral in Pasco. Snapshots of Gary's life and family played on two huge projections on either side of the pulpit.
Burly men with sun-toughened skin tightened their jaws and swiped tears away. One man in particular was shaken up by the service. It's Lonnie Rouse. He too, worked out at the tank farms.
"Gary died from the toxic encephalopathy, and that's what I have," Rouse said.
Rouse and his wife Melinda say they're still fighting the government for compensation. They're also trying to pack in the good family memories ... while there is still time.
"Sometime, somehow, someway, we're going to Disneyland," Melinda Rouse said. "It's supposed to be a happy place, we need happy."
The people who work at Hanford are a tight-knit community. They don't want to believe their paycheck could also kill them.
But for her part, Barbara Sall says she hopes her husband Gary didn't die in vain.
"Everyone knew him, everyone loved him," she said. "In that way, the word's going to get out how he died."
On the Web:
National Toxic Encephalopathy Foundation:
Hanford tank farms:
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