Public release date: 8-Jun-2009
– A recent example emerged last summer, when a Flint, Mich., scrap plant discovered a beat-up kitchen cheese grater that was radioactive. The China-made grater bearing the well-known EKCO brand name was laced with the isotope Cobalt-60. Tests showed the gadget to be giving off the equivalent of a chest X-ray over 36 hours of use, according to NRC documents.
– no one knows how many tainted goods are in circulation in the United States
– 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.
– “It’s your worst nightmare,”
Submitted by SHNS on Wed, 06/03/2009 – 13:38. By ISAAC WOLF, Scripps Howard News Service national
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.
In fact, the Scripps investigation found:
— Reports are mounting that manufacturers and dealers from China, India, former Soviet bloc nations and some African countries are exporting contaminated material and goods, taking advantage of the fact that the United States has no regulations specifying what level of radioactive contamination is too much in raw materials and finished goods.Compounding the problem is the inability of U.S. agents to fully screen every one of the 24 million cargo containers arriving in the United States each year.
— U.S. metal recyclers and scrap yards are not required by any state or federal law to check for radiation in the castoff material they collect or report it when they find some.
— No federal agency is responsible for determining how much tainted material exists in how many consumer and other goods. No one is in charge of reporting, tracking or analyzing cases once they occur. In fact, the recent discovery of a radioactive cheese grater triggered a bureaucratic game of hot potato, with no agency taking responsibility.
— It can be far cheaper and easier for a facility stuck with “hot” items to sell them to an unwitting manufacturer or dump them surreptitiously than to pay for proper disposal and cleaning, which can cost a plant as much as $50 million.
— For facilities in 36 states that want to do the right thing, there is nowhere they can legally dump the contaminated stuff since the shutdown last year of a site in South Carolina, the only U.S. facility available to them for the disposal.
— A U.S. government program to collect the worst of the castoff radioactive items has a two-year waiting list and a 9,000-item backlog — and is fielding requests to collect an additional 2,000 newly detected items a year.