Burlington, IA – Many factors can affect a person's health: diet, exercise, family history and even occupation. Former workers at a weapons manufacturing plant in Southeast Iowa are well aware of that last point.
Many continue to look for help in dealing with health problems likely caused by their decision to show up for work each day. But the process for receiving help is not an easy one.
The Iowa Army Ammunition Plant was established in 1941 in Middletown. The rural community in Des Moines County is roughly 10 miles west of Burlington.
The U.S. Department of Energy says the Iowa plant was involved in weapons assembly and manufacturing for the Atomic Energy Commission between 1947 and 1975. The work with nuclear weapons took place in an area of the plant known as Line One.
Walter Detrick is quite familiar with Line One.
"We were Division B guards," says Detrick, "and we were definitely cleared for Line One top secret clearance." "They had guards out there who were not (cleared), so they stayed on the outside and we stayed on the inside."
Detrick worked as a security guard at the plant for around 15 years. He first served a short stint in 1952 after returning from the service. He then worked there again from 1959 until 1973.
Detrick attended the Department of Labor's recent informational meeting in Burlington. He slouches in his chair in his long-sleeve, plaid shirt, blue jeans, and suspenders, waiting to speak with a representative of the organization.
Detrick, 80, is more frail than he was when he worked at the Ammo Plant. He and his co-workers were never worried about their health, back then, even though they worked so close to the materials used to build a nuclear bomb.
"You had a job to do," says Detrick, "and you do it the best you could."
"Doing the best he could" appears to have caught up to Detrick. He complained about the same problem, for years, during his annual check-ups.
"I told the VA for probably 8 years (when they asked) how you doing, fine but I can't catch my breath," says Detrick, "Two or three blocks and I am out of breath. Well, they said they could not find anything wrong so when I got the change," adds Detrick, "I went to the MAYO Clinic. They did some tests and told me they knew what was the matter: pulmonary fibrosis."
The MAYO Clinic describes pulmonary fibrosis as a scarring of the lungs that makes breathing difficult.
Detrick says doctors told him his condition could be linked to years of smoking. But Detrick says he quit smoking 20 years ago. He believes the pulmonary fibrosis can be linked to his time working in Line One.
Leo Chapuis says he is in the same boat as Walter Detrick. He worked at the Iowa Army Ammunition Plant for nearly 25 years, primarily in Line One.
Chapuis says most of his time was spent building and tearing down nuclear weapons. He believes his work in Line One damaged his lungs, primarily through inhaling various materials.
"That stuff kinda makes an itching," says Chapuis, "then when you get an itching, you want to sneeze and when you sneeze, it comes so quick on you that you can't grab a handkerchief or nothing else."
Chapuis says he has been checked out by plenty of doctors, but no one has been able to give him a clear idea as to what is causing his symptoms.
Both Leo Chapuis and Walter Detrick have filed claims with the federal government. But both have been denied, though, due to a lack of personal information.
Malcolm Nelson says, unfortunately, that is the biggest hurdle for former workers.
Nelson is ombudsman for the U-S Department of Labor's Energy Employee Compensation Program.. He says former employees of nuclear weapons facilities can now qualify for up to $250,000 and medical care, if they can prove they worked at the site.
"We often are talking about employment that occurred 30, 40, 50 years ago," says Nelson, "so the records have been destroyed. Many people worked for contractors and subcontractors who have gone out of business and no longer have records, which makes proving employment a problem."
Nelson says the former employees, or their dependents if the workers have already passed away, must also prove that their time at the plant caused their current health problems.
That is where Dr. Laurence Fuortes of the University of Iowa fits in.
Dr. Fuortes directs a medical screening program for former workers in the nuclear weapons industry in Iowa. He says tests are run to detect lung disease, cancer, and many wellness issues and to determine if the diseases or illnesses are work-related.
"This is a workforce," says Dr. Fuortes, "that might be in their 60's, 70's, or 80's. People have accumulations of chronic illnesses," he continues, "and sometimes it is not easy to say if something is work related."
Dr. Fuortes' office helps the former workers with those claims and even helps them acquire needed medical and employment documents to aid in the file.
Walter Detrick has been working with Dr. Fuortes and will take part in a screening next month. Detrick also plans to re-file his claim.
He was able to prove he worked at the plant thanks to an old badge with his picture, job title, and the phrase Line One on it. He also provided a monthly retirement check from the plant.
"After all that," says Detrick, "they sent me back word that you have proved that you worked in Line One."
Leo Chapuis says he will not follow Detrick's path.
"I don't look to get anything out of this," says Chapuis, "but I would like to be left on the board and let them know I am a survivor."
Whether to go forward with a claim is a decision every former worker at the Iowa Army Ammunition Plant in Middletown Iowa must make.
The process can take months or even years to complete, if they have the proper information.
For those who follow through, financial and medical help is available for the difficult illnesses possibly brought on by simply showing up for work each day.