KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The arrival of men
with a Geiger counter, rubber suits and face masks at the homes of
former Bannister Federal Complex workers marked the only known
residential contamination incident and a health mystery
that’s lasted two decades.
An NBC Action News review of government documents and
interviews with witnesses indicates government workers went to not
only Ivory Mae Thomas’ home, but actually searched the homes
of four workers, and found contamination during a 1989 incident
where a radioactive material got outside the plant.
“I don't know what it was,” said Thomas, now
82 years old. “They said radiation. That's the only name I
knew about it and I know when I stepped in it that my health
started going down.”
Thomas blames the contamination from the Kansas City Plant
for her heart failure, lung problems and a tumor in her chest.
Although Thomas says she was never told
specifically what the men were looking for, our investigation has
determined the men were looking for
radioactive substance used at the Kansas City Plant where they make
non-nuclear parts for nuclear weapons.
“Until now, I knew nothing about what she was exposed
to,” said her son, David Hunt.
Hunt believes radiation contamination may be responsible
for his prostate cancer as well.
“Today, I'm glad to find out. At least we know what she
was exposed to. It's a mystery that we've been trying to find out
for a long time,” said Hunt.
“That was an unfortunate industrial accident,”
said KCP safety officer Pat Hoopes.
“That was an unfortunate industrial
accident,” said KCP safety officer Pat Hoopes. “There
would have been no expected health issues from that.”
It was in an interview with Hoopes that we were able to
connect Thomas’s contamination story to a 1989 plant accident
involving promethium, a radioactive material.
“She did walk around in area that had low-level
promethium,” Hoopes said.
U.S. Dept. of
officials and the Kansas City Plant have not disclosed
details about the incident, Hoopes briefly discussed the promethium
event during a November 2009 interview when we began our initial
illnesses at deaths of current and former workers at the Bannister
“I've been here 23 years,” Hoopes said. “I
know Ivory Mae. There in the late eighties, there was a radioactive
source. It is something they use in industry all the time. It did
leak a little bit of low level.”
“The homes of 4 KCP workers were
inspected and some contamination was found.” according the
most recent site report on the Kansas City Plant from the
Institute for Occupational Safety and Health at the Centers for
. “There were undoubtedly many activities
to identify the cause and extent of this contamination.”
The report, prepared in 2006 by
Ridge Associated Universities
under contract with NIOSH, says
there are “several radioactive sources that can be fragile
and relatively unsealed” at the Bannister Federal Complex
Hoopes said there has only been one contamination incident at
the plant of which he is aware.
He disputed accounts from Thomas and her son that she was not
given details about the exposure.
“They did go there with a Geiger counter,” Hoopes
said. “She was given all the information about it, whether
she understood it or not.”
Thomas was a housekeeper at the Kansas City Plant, but she
says she suffered a series of debilitating illnesses after the
incident that forced her to retire early.
“I couldn't even walk the stairs,” Thomas said.
“I couldn't use the buffer any more. I hardly could
“We almost lost her twice,” said Hunt describing
hit mother’s surgery where doctors removed a tumor from
between her heart and lungs. “Each time was for surgeries and
for the things she went through.”
A report on a 2005 meeting between NIOSH
officials and union workers from the facility indicates employees
expressed concerns that they were not warned about possible
“The plant wanted the exposed workers to bring their
cars inside of the plant so that they could be checked for
radiation,” an ORAU summary of the meeting states. “For
security reasons, the guards had to search the cars that were
brought in. The guards were never told about the possibility of
radiation being inside the cars.”
indicates there was initial concern about
promethium being identified in workers’ bodies, but initial
exposure tests “eventually were determined to be
The report indicates the only known radioactive material at
the Kansas City Plant to have tested positive in worker urine tests
as depleted uranium.
“Scared me to death,” Thomas said recalling the
incident. “I stepped in radiation in that area and I needed
some work done on me real quick.”
She says officials sent her to the emergency room and forced
her to take tests but she claims she does not know the results.
“They got rid of all my items,” Thomas said, "my
shoes, my socks, my apron and they cleaned me up real
“Getting it on ones skin could cause
absorption through the skin,” said
of Missouri-Kansas City nuclear scientist Tony Caruso
“The tell-tale sign here is the urine analysis to determine
In addition to needing health records from the event, Caruso
said information is needed about how much contamination Geiger
counters recorded to determine a threat.
“Only from here can we make a well-formed
determination,” Caruso said about linking exposures to an
"If the exposure time or amount is severe enough, with a
sufficiently radioactive material, it can result in cancer or
radiation sickness," said
City Health Department
spokesperson Jeff Hershberger. "On the
other hand, we must remember that we are all naturally exposed to
radiation every day. Some exposures are far less than getting a
single x-ray, and some are far more."
Caruso, a physics professor, said if not properly cleaned, a
small percentage of the radioactive elements of promethium could
still be present two decades later.
Promethium is used in batteries, rifle sites and for
measuring gauges according to Caruso.
“If there are still measurable
amounts of promethium on the persons or at their homes (or
vehicles) after 20 years, that’s a big deal.” Caruso
said. “As an analogy, for Chernobyl victims and their
children, some 24 years later, there is (radiation) that can be
Caruso says as long as promethium doesn’t get in a
worker’s system through skin contact or accidental ingestion,
it doesn’t pose as much risk as many other radioactive
Caruso says, overall, promethium is not nasty.
“It was purposely chosen to work with in nuclear
batteries for pacemakers in the 70’s because of the low gamma
emission," said Caruso.
A spokesperson at the Kansas City Plant did not respond to
our repeated requests for details on the event.
“The Kansas City Plant is open and communicative with
its employees and stakeholders about the type of work done at the
plant, materials used, and safety of the work environment,”
said plant spokesperson Tanya Snyder in a two sentence e-mailed
statement on the incident. “Any other representation is an
inaccurate characterization of the plant’s operations and
nationally-recognized safety and health management
“I am aware that publically available documents claim
that contamination was found in four homes,”
spokesperson Damien Lavera said in
“A 385-page report of the
investigation, issued in September 1989, concluded that there was
no potential intake, even though contamination was found in some of
the workers’ homes and cars,” Lavera said quoting the
NIOSH report. “Further, that summary indicates that
‘There is no evidence of any environmental radiological
impact at the Kansas City Plant. No documentation has been found to
indicate any significant off-site levels of contamination –
no off-site airborne concentrations.'"
Although we have filed a Freedom of Information Act to obtain
the 385-page report on the promethium incident, the DOE has not
released it or disclosed details of the event.
“I am not in a position to provide any additional
information beyond what you already have,” Lavera wrote.
“The FOIA process you initiated will identify the report in
question, locate a copy of it, and review it for release to the
“As we have discussed with you in the past, our Kansas
City Plant is one that has been recognized for its record of
achievement in health, safety and management,” Lavera said.
Thomas and her son just want answers about the specific
exposure to her and her home.
“We know now, after 20-some years, we finally found
out,” Hunt said repeating the newly learned name of the
radioactive metal she was exposed to, “Promethium,
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