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Los Alamos Lab Incident Sends Worker to Hospital

August, 2005

The Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nation's most important nuclear weapons lab, has reported the second major incident in recent days of mishandled hazardous materials at the University of California-run laboratory, a lab employee was hospitalized for six days with "pneumonia-like symptoms" after inhaling dangerous fumes.

Another employee suffered temporary shortness of breath after exposure to what an in-house investigative report at Los Alamos called "hazardous chemical vapors," but was not seriously hurt.

The incident, which occurred June 16 but was not investigated by the New Mexico lab until Aug. 3, is still under scrutiny by lab officials. One employee has been placed on leave pending its resolution, lab officials said.

The investigative report hinted that something was wrong with the lab's ventilation system, which it called "degraded," but no further details were available .

The two laboratory workers were mixing concentrated nitric and hydrochloric acids to form a highly corrosive, fuming liquid called Aqua Regia -- Latin for "royal water" -- which is used in etching and certain analytic procedures. Because Aqua Regia does not last very long, it must be mixed immediately before use.

The two post-doctoral researchers were conducting lab work with the mixture when they inhaled fumes. One employee experienced temporary shortness of breath and no other symptoms. The other employee experienced prolonged respiratory symptoms and was hospitalized for six days in July. Doctors preliminarily concluded that the chemical exposure likely contributed to the employee's condition.

A copy of the report by lab investigator Matthew Hardy was leaked to news media y by a Washington-based activist group, the Project on Government Oversight, which is a frequent critic of the national laboratories.

Hardy's report notes that by Aug. 5, the medical director of Los Alamos "completed a review of all available information as well as relevant medical records" involving the hospitalized patient, whom the report identifies only by the code name "W1." According to Hardy's report, the medical director "concluded that the chemical exposure which occurred June 16 contributed to W1's hospitalization."

The incident follows the lab's admission July 27 that a lab employee had apparently unintentionally leaked radioactive material, americium-241, via a FedEx package and other means to sites and private homes in four states.

Lab officials declined comment on either the hazardous- fumes or the americium-241 cases, pending further investigation. Lab officials have also refused to name the employees involved in the incidents on privacy grounds, or to explain why one employee was placed on leave in the hazardous- fumes case.

Accidents at the lab became a heated issue last year when the then- director George "Pete" Nanos blasted employees for carelessness in a case that included a woman whose eyes were temporarily damaged by a laser beam and a separate instance when an employee risked being electrocuted. The cases disturbed lab officials partly because they feared the adverse publicity would end up costing UC its contract to run the lab, which UC has managed under contract to the federal government for six decades.

In a recent memo, laboratory director Robert Kuckuck reminded laboratory employees that they have the right and responsibility to stop work if they feel that working conditions are, in any way, unsafe.

"The safety of individuals at this laboratory is paramount," the director said.