Friday, April 27, 2012

Radioactive Contamination in Consumer Products

Early this year the home retail chain Bed Bath & Beyond recalled over 200 shipments of a brushed steel tissue box holder.  The stir caused by the recall inspired great headlines like this one from Gizmodo1:

Time to decorate! I'll take this potpourri urn, these palm frond bookends, a nice neutral-colored bathmat, and WHY IS THIS TISSUE BOX EMITTING DANGEROUS RADIATION?!!
The recalled tissue box from Bed Bath & Beyond. source
In reality, radiation contamination in consumer products is no laughing matter, and this is no isolated case.  Contaminated consumer products have been traded between many countries, and a wide range of products have been identified. 
In 2009, Wal-Mart was fined almost $400,000 by the Nuclear Regulatory Committee for exit signs containing radioactive material2.  500 sets of radioactive elevator buttons were found in France in 20083. A few cheese graters turned up in Michigan containing cobalt-60, the same isotope found in the Bed Bath & Beyond’s tissue box holders. Even a batch of 1000 La-Z-Boy recliners was found to have radioactive metal brackets in 19984.  Due to the common occurrence of radiation in consumer products, the US government even set up a Nuclear Material Events Database in 1990.  Since then over 20,000 cases of radiation releases have been documented5.
The additional radiation exposure to consumers of these products is generally low level but still a cause for concern.  The tissue boxes were estimated to expose consumers using bathrooms with the boxes to the equivalent of a few extra chest x-rays per year.  Unexpected radiation sources add up: chronic exposure of even low doses of radiation can lead to cataracts, cancer and birth defects, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A 2005 study of more than 6,000 Taiwanese who lived in apartments built with radioactive reinforcing steel from 1983 to 2005 showed a statistically significant increase in leukemia and breast cancer 6.
The question remains: if we don’t carry a radiation detector with us every time we go shopping, how will we know which products to avoid?  The solution has to involve better detection along increasingly complex supply chains.  Most of the tainted metal introduced into consumer products comes from contaminated batches of scrap metal, sometimes containing radiation acquired in nuclear power activities.  As this metal travels is formed, shaped, and implemented in products, too few check points are involved to catch radiation.  Radiation detectors need to become part of the manufacturing process, not just a safeguard against large foreign radiation sources.  And due to the wide range of consumer products tainted by radioactive materials, detectors need to screen more products. 
With new guideless and increased detection during manufacturing and distribution, we can finally be confident that our next hot buy won’t really be hot.
D-tect Systems is a supplier of advanced radiation and chemical detection equipment sold around the world.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Solar Radiation - the Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful

As spring arrives in the northern hemisphere, people look forward to more sun; longer daylight hours, plant growth, and the chance of getting a tan.  This year, however, the media has been casting the sun in a whole different light.  The affects of powerful solar events during the last few months have caused some to wonder if the sun has a dark side.
The cycles of the earth are very familiar to us – seasons, calendars, tides.  The sun also has a cyclical nature, but many of these events still stump scientists.  The sun undergoes a solar cycle (or solar magnetic activity cycle) every 11 years.  This cycle is evidenced by the number of sunspots (small dark areas on the surface of the sun) that appear near the equator of the sun.  Sunspots are an indication of solar activity – scientists believe that they are caused by the electromagnetic fields knotting up as they move around the sun.  Since the solar maximum is predicted for next year, solar activity is nearly at its peak.
The solar cycle also causes changes closer to home.  Frequent solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) unleash huge waves of solar radiation during the peak of the cycle.  In fact, just last month a huge solar flare bombarded the earth with charged particles.  This event measured in as the largest solar radiation storm since 2003.  The effects of this storm and others like it have been widespread and occasionally serious – they can cause spacecraft electronics to malfunction, disrupt power grids, and even cause increased corrosion on fuel pipelines.
The good news about solar radiation storms is they cause very little increase in background radiation levels.  The earth’s atmosphere does a good job of blocking solar radiation, even in increased amounts.  Unless you are doing a good deal of flying (at higher altitudes the atmosphere is less effective at blocking radiation) or are visiting regions near the Antarctic, you won’t have any measureable exposure over the normal amount.  If you’d like more information on the threats solar storms can cause, check out this paper by James Marusek.
National Geographic
Even if they can cause damage, solar radiation storms have a silver lining – these events create some of the most striking auroras ever seen.  The Northern Lights (as well as those in the southern hemisphere) are caused charged particles colliding with the upper atmosphere.  For some great National Geographic images of auroras caused by a solar storm, visit this link.
As the sun strengthens this spring, remember that the news you hear about solar events may not all be bad after all.
D-tect Systems is a supplier of advanced radiation and chemical detection equipment sold around the world.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Hospital Radiation Risks Uncovered

There is no doubt that the U.S. spends a lot of money on antiterrorism efforts. Estimates vary greatly, but some experts have put the cost of efforts since 9/11 at over $3.3 trillion1 . The question remains: is it enough? Millions of dollars are spent on foreign operations and border protection to keep threats out of the United States.  But threats arising from negligence inside the U.S. are on the rise according to new research findings disclosed recently in congressional hearings.
An article released last week by the New York Times documents the results of hospital audits where large amounts of radioactive materials are used and stored.  The testimony of security experts included comments that hospital radioactive materials are much more vulnerable to theft or tampering than in other industries. 
Hospital equipment utilizing radiation may cause a threat if not properly secured.  source
Evidence of these weaknesses includes poor security of radioactive supplies (several hospitals had lock combinations for radiation store rooms written right on the door posts) and outdated tracking technology for radioactive materials in use. On top of the physical security underpinnings, a distinct lack of training security personnel exists to guard supplies or deal with threats. 
The real danger in these patterns of loose security is that even small amounts or weak radioactive materials can be very dangerous.  Dirty bombs can be created that disperse tiny amounts of radiation over large areas with dire consequences – contamination (and fear of contamination) could render the location of dispersion vacant for many years. We need to be sure that the United States is not only safe from radioactive materials entering our borders, but also safe from within. 
To read the entire article, visit this link.  For more information on radiation basics and how much radiation constitutes a risk, visit the Radiation Safety page on the D-tect Systems website.
D-tect Systems is a supplier of advanced radiation and chemical detection equipment sold around the world.