Source: NBC News |Ronan Farrow and Rich McHugh | November 29, 2016

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‘America’s Chernobyl’: Inside the most toxic place in the nation

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Athletic 35-year-old men who have never touched cigarettes are not supposed to come down with a debilitating lung disease usually linked to smoking.

But Seth Ellingsworth of West Richland, Washington, says he got sick in an instant last year, when he briefly inhaled a strange odor at his job at the nearby Hanford Nuclear Site.

“I started having breathing problems,” said Ellingsworth, “and it hasn’t gone away since.”

The father of four, who has reactive airway disease and is now unable to work, wore a nebulizer mask and gasped for air as he showed NBC News all the medicines he’s forced to take. “This is a corticosteroid. This is a pill I take, it’s Zafirlukast. This is prednisone. This is a bronchodilator.”

Seventy years ago, the Hanford Site produced plutonium for America’s nuclear arsenal. Today, it’s run by the Department of Energy through its contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions. The contractor is managing a $110 billion cleanup of 56 million gallons of chemical and nuclear waste, stored in 177 underground tanks — a task that’s expected to last the next 50 years.

But the tanks are leaking, and the vapors they emit contain toxic and radioactive chemicals known to cause cancer as well as brain and lung damage. Just this year, 61 workers have been exposed, and some nuclear experts have called Hanford “the most toxic place in America” and “an underground Chernobyl waiting to happen.”

The DOE has acknowledged in nearly 20 studies conducted over the past 24 years that there is a safety risk to workers at Hanford. Just two years ago, a report found toxins in the air “far exceeding occupational limits” and a “causal link” between vapor exposure and lung and brain damage. The DOE has also said that the site “cannot effectively control” dangers and gives workers “no warning.”

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But critics say the DOE still isn’t doing enough to act on its own findings, and continues to put workers at risk.

Local neuropsychologist Brian Campbell says he has evaluated 29 people at Hanford with both respiratory and cognitive symptoms, including “some of the worst cases of dementia that I’ve seen in young people, which we do not anticipate.”

Dr. Campbell said the DOE doesn’t want to acknowledge the injuries. “More likely than not,” said Campbell, “I think it’s caused by the exposure they had at Hanford.”

When NBC News put out a call for current and former Hanford workers who believe they were exposed to toxic materials, more than 20 volunteered to talk to us. Eleven of them sat down with NBC News for a group interview.

Diana Gegg was one of several former workers who said they have dementia: “I have shaking on the right side of my body.”

Lonny Poteat said he had been diagnosed with “pretty bad” nerve damage. “Sometimes the pain gets so great,” said Poteat, “I just pass out.”

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Mario Diaz said he was losing his memory and struggling to breathe, and became emotional when he said he’s no longer able to do things with his family.

“The worst part is showing up for work out there and getting pasted because they didn’t tell us,” said Diaz. “They weren’t forthright in sharing what they know.”

The workers told us that “over and over,” the Department of Energy and the contractor on site told them the readings for harmful materials were safe.

“We’re told daily that it’s safe,” said a man who currently works at Hanford. “[That] there’s nothing to worry about.”

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