June 6, 2009
Thousands of everyday products and materials containing radioactive metals are surfacing across the United States and around the world.
Common kitchen cheese graters, reclining chairs, women’s handbags and tableware manufactured with contaminated metals have been identified, some after having been in circulation for as long as a decade. So have fencing wire and fence posts, shovel blades, elevator buttons, airline parts and steel used in construction.
A Scripps Howard News Service investigation has found that — because of haphazard screening, an absence of oversight and substantial disincentives for businesses to report contamination — no one knows how many tainted goods are in circulation in the United States.
But thousands of consumer goods and millions of pounds of unfinished metal and its byproducts have been found to contain low levels of radiation, and experts think the true amount could be much higher, perhaps by a factor of 10.
Government records of cases of contamination, obtained through state and federal Freedom of Information Act requests, illustrate the problem.
In 2006 in Texas, for example, a recycling facility inadvertently created 500,000 pounds of radioactive steel byproducts after melting metal contaminated with Cesium-137, according to U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission records. In Florida in 2001, another recycler unintentionally did the same, and wound up with 1.4 million pounds of radioactive material. And in 1998, 430,000 pounds of steel laced with Cobalt-60 made it to the U.S. heartland from Brazil.
But an accounting of the magnitude of the problem is unknown because U.S. and state governments do not require scrap yards, recyclers and other businesses — a primary line of defense against rogue radiation — to screen metal goods and materials for radiation or report it when found. And no federal agency is responsible for oversight.
“Nobody’s going to know — nobody — how much has been melted into consumer goods,” said Ray Turner, an international expert on radiation with Fort Mitchell, Ky.-based River Metals Recycling. He has helped decontaminate seven metal-recycling facilities that unwittingly melted scrap containing radioactive isotopes.
“It’s your worst nightmare,” Turner said.
It is also one that has only barely begun to register as a potential threat to health and safety.
What is known now is that — despite the shared belief of officials in six state and federal agencies that tainted metal is potentially dangerous, should be prevented from coming in unnecessary contact with people and the environment, and should be barred from entering the United States — there is no one in charge of making sure that happens.