Thank the DOE: Bed, Bath & Beyond isn’t the only Recipient of Radioactive Products in US

In the scare-of-the-week news story we learn that Bed, Bath & Beyond may have distributed radioactive tissue holders across the country.

It allegedly started when just four metal tissue box covers buried in a transport truck set off radiation detectors installed after 911 to protect us from a terrorist threat. Who knew truck-stop Geiger counters would also serve to protect us, apparently, from made-in India? But are mass exporters like China and India really to blame for these all-too-common consumer product scares?

Perhaps not.

Some 30 years after the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown there are still radioactive wild boar in Germany, and many thyroid cancer deaths among children have occurred in Europe. A news story this past summer reveals that the Fukushima Daiitchi meltdown released over two times the radiation in the first week following the disaster than Japanese officials admitted to in the first 80 days! With not one but three core breaches at the plant, the disaster is 20 times the magnitude of Chernobyl by some estimates. And yet, the tragedy there certainly has not garnered 20 times the attention. Follow up on the story in the American media is scant.

The radioactive elements in and around Fukushima Prefecture continue to escape into the air and seawater as the one-year anniversary of the catastrophe approaches. It remains a global problem, not merely a Japanese crisis or even a BP Gulf oil spill or Katrina-style fiasco. So why do our elected representatives and their media megaphones remain strangely silent? Because too many US politicians are funded by the nuclear lobby and refuse to advocate for the smallest changes to US nuclear energy policy. The cohort of see-no, hear-no evil includes President Obama who, apparently, has yet to reconsider his nucs-are-green position. The Germans, by contrast, did not delay. Japan’s wake-up call prompted plans to phase out German nuclear power plants over the next decade, a change that will no doubt propel the nation to innovate alternative energy solutions that may very well position them to become a world energy production leader — a position the US will no doubt come to envy.

We are no longer a nation to embrace change — not even in the name of moral, technical or environmental necessity.

The radioactive tissue box covers shipped to Bed, Bath & Beyond stores in 20 states may not seem like such a big deal in and of itself but in the broader picture it takes on greater relevance. What’s missing from such news is that Americans’ cumulative exposure is the wild card that nobody — not the FDA, CDC, FTC, NRC, TSA or DOE — is tracking. “Hot” tissue boxes are just another drop in the radioactive bucket we cannot measure. This was true before Japanese radiation found its way into US milk, rainwater and air. Talk about irony: For every worry that a dirty bomb might be unleashed on American soil after 911, there is a more insidious radioactive risk that has flown unnoticed under the public’s radar — the self-inflicted variety!

In 1998 the Department of Energy proposed to recycle low-level radioactive waste into home goods, of which tissue boxes would have been but one type of product sold to unsuspecting Americans. In the UK, a similar decision took place but to greater public outcry. The US plan came to light in an investigative journalism piece called “Nuclear Spoons“. The DOE’s brilliant idea? Resolve the low-level nuclear waste conundrum by reducing restrictions on recycling “hot metal” because no single item in a given household would pose a significant threat.

Fast forward to 2012: In the Washington Post version of the Bed, Bath & Beyond article it states that these tissue boxes, if placed on a bathroom vanity near which one spent 30 minutes per day, would amount to “several chest X-rays” in a year’s time. What the article doesn’t mention: This assumption falls apart if the same radioactive tissue box cover were placed on a nightstand near one’s head for six-plus hours per night. Clearly, there is no way the authorities can tell a given person whether radiation exposure is safe. That is because, in part, there has never been an agreed-upon definition of “safe“. Moreover, government agencies have no idea how or where such an item will be used. For another, they have no idea how many products are tainted in and around us. Meanwhile, there are certain groups of people who, because of prior cancer treatment or occupational exposure, have reached their lifetime radiation exposure limit. Children and pregnant women are also vulnerable to a greater degree. Finally, it was known as early as the 1970s and confirmed through further research that chronic low-level radioactive exposure carries a higher-than-appreciated risk because it may slip under the immune system’s radar in much the same way high-level of exposure, paradoxically, overwhelms the body’s ability to repair the damage.

When did the American people consent to become unwitting subjects in an indefinite public health experiment?

The past two decades US cancer rates have grown to such an extent that it is now estimated that one in two Americans will develop cancer in their lifetimes. The problem is that treating cancer is not the same as curing it. The various cancer foundations need to bring to public attention that for as much as lifestyle is thought to play a role in health our environment is increasingly the weakest link. We can clean up our food, air and water supplies if we set our minds to it. While such an effort may seem expensive, the cost to health insurers, the premium increases consumers and their employers face, and the staggering personal and financial cost to treating a largely preventable disease are even less acceptable. Prevention is the best cancer cure.

The cost of doing nothing is too great.

The single largest export from the United States is scrap metal. More of our castoffs than we appreciate are toxic be it lead, mercury and cadmium-tainted electronic e-waste or radioactive contaminants originating from medical use, agriculture or power generation. In recent years contaminated products from China and elsewhere have sounded off so many alarms that consumers are on the verge of accepting an unacceptable level of risk as an inescapable fact of modern life. What we acknowledge far less is that laborers in the Third World are very often utilizing adulterated raw materials and re-purposed resources that we ship to them to build our products — at a risk to all involved. This need not be inevitable. We can and must phase out the recycling of radioactive scrap in consumer products. Radioactive particles have the potential to find their way into far worse than tissue boxes: braces, dental fillings, steel beams used to construct apartment buildings in Taiwan, eyeglass frames, pots, pans and stainless steel flatware. We may not be able to limit controversial sources of electromagnetic radiation emitted from WI-FI devices, cell phone towers and mobile handsets but we sure don’t need to allow undisclosed sources of ionizing radiation into our homes, offices and workplaces.

It is time for the public to say: Not with my consent.

Our vote. Our health. Our government. Our choice.

 

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Resources

Recycled Radiation | Scripps Howard News

DOE Rebuttal | PDF

IAEA: Reducing Risks in the Scrap Metal Industry | PDF

Nuclear Waste Recyclers Target Consumer Products | Reuters

Radiation Exposure and Cancer | American Cancer Society

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