Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#62 - Dangers Of Radiation Are Now Increasing In Municipal Waste, 31-Jan-1988

Two recent trends are both causing more and more radioactive material
to flow into municipal landfills. In late 1987 the federal Nuclear
Regulatory Commission (NRC) re-classified large amounts of "low level"
radioactive waste as "below regulatory concern" (in other words, too
low to worry about). These wastes, from hospitals, laboratories, and
nuclear power plants, used to be put into special (expensive)
landfills, but now they can legally be sent to the town dump. At the
same time, radioactive wastes are increasingly being incorporated into
industrial and consumer products, which ultimately get thrown into the
town dump--or are incinerated, then dumped. The safety implications of
these trends must be questioned, particularly in light of new
scientific evidence about the dangers of radioactivity to humans.

X-rays were first discovered in 1895 and came into widespread use for
medical purposes soon thereafter. Many early radiation researchers died
from cancer caused by the radiation used in their experiments.
Likewise, early medical uses of radiation killed many patients. As
recently as the 1950s, for example, many pregnant women were routinely
given pelvic examinations by x-ray. Then in 1956, Dr. Alice Stewart
published her landmark paper showing that pelvic irradiation increased
the incidence of childhood cancer and leukemia by 50%. Today doctors
take considerable pains to avoid fetal exposure to radiation, but the
lesson was costly to learn.

Radiation regulations in the United States are constantly tightening.
What used to seem sensible and safe is now recognized as foolhardy and
dangerous. Unfortunately, these regulations can only work in situations
where exposure of individuals can be measured and controlled, such as
medical exposures and exposures of workers in nuclear power plants.
Radioactive wastes in municipal landfills are, by their nature,

Despite the trend toward tightened regulations, there is a counter-
trend putting more and more radioactive material into commercial
products. Exposures from these sources are thus increasingly difficult
to control. "Industrial and consumer devices incorporating
radionuclides are proliferating as fast as inventors and entrepreneurs
can dream them up," says Dr. John Gofman, Professor Emeritus at
University of California at Berkeley.

Many people have heard of the unfortunate women who in the 1920s got
cancer because they painted dials of wrist watches with radioactive
radium-226. What is not so well-known is that selfilluminating
radioactive watches are still being sold; radioactive tritium and
radioactive promethium-147 have been substituted for radium. Exposures
to the general public from this source are low, but the trend is clear:
more and more radioactive material is being used in commercial
products. In 1977--the most recent list we could find--the United
Nations published a four-page list of consumer products containing
radioactive materials. The list includes many radioluminescent products
with the radionuclide embedded in paint or plastic: aircraft
instruments, compasses, instrument dials and markers, thermostat dials
and pointers, automobile lock illuminators, automobile shift quadrants,
bell pushes, fishing lights and spirit levels. The radioactive elements
involved are tritium, promethium-147 and radium-226.

Radioactive elements in sealed tubes are marketed in timepieces,
ordinary compasses, marine compasses, marine navigation instruments,
markers, signs, indicators, exit signs, step markers, mooring lights
and buoys, public telephone dials, light switch markers, bell pushes
and miniature light sources. The radionuclides involved are tritium and

Electronic and electrical devices employing radionuclides include
electronic tubes, glow discharge tubes, voltage discharge tubes, cold
cathode tubes, fluorescent lamp starters, highpressure mercury-vapor
lamps, vacuum tubes, glow lamps, spark-gap tubes, high-voltage
protective devices and low-voltage fuses. The radionuclides involved
are tritium, cesium-137, radium-226, thorium, nickel-63, cobalt-60,
krypton-85 and promethium-147.

Gas and aerosol (smoke) detectors, now numbering in the millions, can
contain Americium-241, radium-226, and plutonium238. (There are non-
radioactive smoke detectors sold as well.)

Eyeglass lenses are on the market containing up to 30% by weight of
radioactive uranium and thorium. Dental porcelains are marketed
containing a combination of radioactive uranium and cerium, aimed at
simulating the fluorescence of natural teeth in daylight and artificial
light. Some ceramics (dinner plates) have been reported to contain as
much as 10% uranium or thorium. The mantels of Coleman lanterns are
made of radioactive thorium. The United Nations, in reporting this
partial list of radioactive consumer products, concluded with these
remarks: "It must be pointed out, however, that accurate information on
the [radio]activities contained in the consumer products and on the
number of products manufactured is sometimes difficult to obtain."
Manufacturers are reluctant to discuss radioactivity in their products.

We must stress that the levels of radioactivity in these products are
low. Still, as new evidence becomes available, radioactivity seems to
be more dangerous to humans that previously realized.

In December, 1987, SCIENCE magazine (voice of the American Association
for the Advancement of Science) described new studies showing that
radiation of humans is two to seven times more cancer-causing then
previously thought. Science pointed out that "most of what we know
about the biological effects of radiation" comes from studies of people
who lived in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the time we A-bombed them, 45
years ago. Since that time, studies have been underway to estimate the
radiation doses received by various individuals and the resulting
medical effects. In 1965, calculations of the radiation dose were used
throughout the world to set permissible radiation exposure levels. "It
turns out, however, that those calculations were wrong," reports
SCIENCE. The doses that A-bomb victims received were much lower than
previously thought; thus the dangers of low exposures are far greater
than previously realized. (An actual model of the Hisoshima bomb was
constructed at the government's laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico,
and was not exploded but was run as a controlled reactor while
measurements were taken.)

Dr. Arthur Upton of New York University says new cancer mortality data
from Japan "are causing total risk to appear much larger than it did a
few years ago." The risk is greater among adults but greater still
among children. Among children, radiation seems to be ten to 12 times
more dangerous than formerly thought.

As the cancer risks from radiation rise, and as more and more
radioactive material gets flows into municipal landfills, we must
recognize that the town dump has become more dangerous than we used to

Data from: Leslie Roberts, "Atomic Bomb Doses Reassessed," SCIENCE,
Vol. 238 (Dec. 18, 1987), pgs. 1649-1651; United Nations Committee on
the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), SOURCES AND EFFECTS OF
SCIENTIFIC RADIATION (New York: United Nations, 1977); John W. Gofman,
RADIATION AND HUMAN HEALTH (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1981).

--Peter Montague


Descriptor terms: radiation; msw; landfilling; nuclear regulatory
commission; llw; regulation; nuclear power; laboratories; hospitals;
radioactive waste; incineration; health; health statistics; cancer;
death; death statistics; studies; findings; irradiation; leukemia;
alice stewart; regulations; john gofman; consumer protection; radium;
united nations; tritium; promethium-147; radium-226; radionuclides;
aaas; nuclear weapons; arthur upton; risk assessment; leslie roberts;
sierra club;

Error. Page cannot be displayed. Please contact your service provider for more details. (18)