For people Mary Kathryn Fletcher’s age, the cold war is a somewhat abstract historical term, but Fletcher came face-to-face with an element of that period of American history during a summer internship.
Fletcher, a North Carolina State University student, spent much of her summer deciphering a compensation program created by the federal government to aid workers exposed to radiation and harmful chemicals at a cold war-era defense plant.
A senior from Shelby, N.C. majoring in biochemistry, Fletcher spent much of a nine-week internship in Portsmouth, Ohio working in an occupational health internship program. Her job was to explain the compensation program to the workers it was designed to help.
Portsmouth is the site of the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, which from the mid-1950s until 2001 enriched uranium for the nation’s atomic energy and weapons programs. The plant was conceived and built at a time when the nation’s leaders saw a need to match or surpass the Soviet Union in the development of nuclear weapons.
“The people who worked there are really sick,” said Fletcher. “They were exposed to heavy amounts of radiation and chemicals. And now they have a huge range of different cancers and lung conditions and other conditions related to those exposures.”
The federal government recognized the hazards faced by plant workers, and Congress in 2000 passed the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act to provide compensation and medical care for workers who became ill as a result of exposure to radiation and chemicals while working at the plant.
Government programs can be difficult to understand – consider the federal tax code – so an internship program was created to enlist bright college students to figure out how to explain the compensation program to the people it was designed to help.
Internship program administrators set high standards for admission to the program. Fletcher said she had to submit an application, four essays, a letter of recommendation, a resume and sit for an interview to get into the program. Her research advisor, Dr. Michael Schulman, William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor, suggested she apply. Schulman is a rural sociologist whose work has focused on farm worker safety. He is also president of the Rural Sociological Society.
Fletcher was paired during the internship with a graduate student from Georgia Southern University.
“The first day we got there, they gave us all these papers and forms and booklets and tons of stuff about the compensation program,” said Fletcher. “We took everything and tried to make something that would be easy for workers to look at themselves and decide: this is what I need; this is who I need to talk to; this is what I need to get from my doctor, stuff like that, and we ended up making three booklets and 42 fact sheets that relate chemicals to diseases.”
Fletcher said she and her partner interviewed former plant workers in an effort to determine what the workers needed in order to understand and participate in the compensation program.
“We tried to work with them, that’s the big thing about the program,” Fletcher explains. “They want interns to interact with the people.”
“We piloted the materials. We got feedback from them (the former workers) to figure out what they need, what do they understand about the program.”
The compensation program covers workers at other sites as well as Portsmouth, and Fletcher said the materials she and her partner produced were developed so that they could be adapted for use at other sites.
Fletcher said her summer in Ohio “opened my eyes to how huge of an issue this is,” adding that more than 300,000 people have applied to the compensation program.
The internship also helped Fletcher define her future.
She hopes to attend graduate school following graduation next May to study environmental health with a focus on occupational safety and rural health. She would like to use her education to prevent what happened in Portsmouth, to keep workers from being exposed to health hazards in the first place
“They (the workers) shouldn’t have ever been exposed to that much radiation and chemicals, especially in the 1970s and ‘80s, when we knew better,” Fletcher said.
– Dave Caldwell