OAKLAND, CA — Cheese graters, handbags, fencing and recliners are just some of the thousands of consumer products that have been manufactured with radioactive metals, according to U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) records.
A Scripps Howard News Service investigation looked at NRC records and the current state of reporting on radioactive materials, turning up numerous flaws in the U.S.'s current system, and finding a wide range of cases in which radioactive materials and products were brought to the U.S.
NRC records show 18,740 documented cases involving radioactive materials in consumer products, in metal intended for consumer products or other public exposure to radioactive material. The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates there are some 500,000 unaccounted for radioactively contaminated metal objects in the U.S., and the NRC estimates that figure is around is 20 million pounds of contaminated waste.
In some cases the products are made up primarily of the tainted materials, and in other cases it's a small component that contaminated the products. Goods that have been found tainted with radioactive materials include:
* A China-made kitchen grater, found in a Flint, Mich., scrap plant, that was laced with the isotope Cobalt-60, giving off the equivalent of a chest X-ray over 36 hours of use.
* A 430,000-pound shipment of metal, tainted with Cobalt-60, that came from Brazil in 1998 and was used to make brackets for 1,000 La-Z-Boy recliners, giving off a chest X-ray's worth of radiation every 1,000 hours.
* About 900 women's handbags made in India and found in the Netherlands that had metal rings laced with Cobalt-60 on each bag's shoulder strap.
* 500 sets of buttons made for Otis elevators in France and Sweden, using radioactive metal from India.
* Shipments of chain link fencing from India in 1991, and another shipment of tainted fencing from India a decade later.
The report also points out that the U.S. does not have enough regulation or oversight of the matter. Some of the findings from investigation:
-- 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.
And when U.S. customs do find and reject radioactive shipments, no one tracks what happens to that load, so it could end up coming back to the U.S. another day.
In many cases, the contamination comes about through the recycling process, when radioactive metals get blended in with other materials. Some items in factories like industrial smoke detectors and measuring gauges contain small amounts of radioactive materials. If the items and other materials are scrapped (especially in the case of a factory shutting down and being demolished or gutted), that radiation can escape and contaminate recycled products.
Some recent examples of accidental contamination, from the report:
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.
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