Grand Canyon tourists exposed for years to radiation in museum building
February 20, 2019 1:58 AM   Subscribe

For nearly two decades at the Grand Canyon, tourists, employees, and children on tours passed by three paint buckets stored in the National Park's museum collection building, unaware that they were being exposed to radiation. Although federal officials learned last year that the 5-gallon containers were brimming with uranium ore, then removed the radioactive specimens, the park's safety director alleges nothing was done to warn park workers or the public that they might have been exposed to unsafe levels of radiation.
posted by eirias (67 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
Seems like this is a lot more serious for the employees than for people who visited once.
posted by thelonius at 2:27 AM on February 20 [70 favorites]


Worth reading the article, because the way this was handled after the danger was discovered is at least as messed up as the fact that there were three random buckets of uranium ore just hanging out in the museum for decades in a spot where children would sit to receive presentations. What a colossal abdication of responsibility. There will be lawsuits, I'm sure.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 2:43 AM on February 20 [8 favorites]


...why were there buckets of uranium ore? Were they just geological specimens?

I found this rather charming (not to understate the dangerous and frankly bewildering nature of the situation):

Stephenson said the uranium threat was discovered in March 2018 by the teenage son of a park employee who happened to be a Geiger counter enthusiast, and brought a device to the museum collection room.

posted by solarion at 3:00 AM on February 20 [46 favorites]


Non-AMP link
posted by D.C. at 3:02 AM on February 20 [13 favorites]


What's weird though is that I normally think of Park Service types as being very decent, conscientious people who care a lot about the public. What the hell happened here?
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 3:05 AM on February 20 [3 favorites]


My money is on radon build-up in the cabinet.
posted by groda at 3:45 AM on February 20 [2 favorites]


This interview with a nuclear scientist gives a lot more context than the article in the OP. It's not quite as terrifying as it sounds.
posted by asterix at 3:48 AM on February 20 [22 favorites]


When I first saw this thread, the first person that I thought of was Cheryl Rofer. Her single tweet on this incident thus far is a link to the article in The Verge that asterix linked to.
posted by NoMich at 4:36 AM on February 20 [2 favorites]


Yeah, for the teenage Geiger counter enthusiast, this must have been like hitting the jackpot.

I imagine he’ll feel justified in bringing his Geiger counter wherever he goes for the rest of his life—dates, weddings, funerals, etc.
posted by ejs at 4:43 AM on February 20 [150 favorites]


Thanks for the correctives, guys.

While “buckets of uranium ore sitting neglected in plain sight for decades” is distressing on its face (even if the dangers here were oversold), it’s also weirdly relatable. Misplaced stuff sitting in bins in public parts of the house is my aesthetic.
posted by eirias at 4:45 AM on February 20 [25 favorites]


Seems like this is a lot more serious for the employees than for people who visited once.

"One of the buckets was so full that its lid would not close.

Stephenson said the containers were stored next to a taxidermy exhibit, where children on tours sometimes stopped for presentations, sitting next to uranium for 30 minutes or more. By his calculation, those children could have received radiation dosages in excess of federal safety standards within three seconds, and adults could have suffered dangerous exposure in less than a half-minute.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission measures radiation contamination in millisieverts per hour or per year. According to Stephenson, close exposures to the uranium buckets could have exposed adults to 400 times the health limit — and children to 4,000 times what is considered safe."

So while it's true that this is far worse for employees who had repeated exposure, this is still pretty damn serious even for one time visitors who stood near these buckets.
posted by nightrecordings at 5:02 AM on February 20 [15 favorites]


I will say, 800 mR/hr on contact is pretty substantial, as high as some of the hotspots I saw inside a (shut down) reactor compartment. This is legitimately more radiation than the general public should ever be exposed to, but I agree with the Verge article that this isn't as terrible as it sounds. Even an 800 mR/hr point source isn't automatically dangerous. You'd need to eat this ore sample or sleep with it under your pillow for a month or so to have a hope of seeing acute health effects. Yes, this is a gross violation of federal safety limits, but those limits are orders of magnitude away from acutely dangerous levels of exposure.

Honestly the part that gets me is the the half-assed cleanup and coverup. The pictures of the OSHA inspectors in full Anti-Contamination clothing is what it should have looked like to begin with, not a couple yokels with dish gloves and a borrowed radiac. It's not surprising the OSHA inspectors traced the radiation back to the still-contaminated buckets. Those clowns probably spread more potentially hazardous contamination moving the ore around than was spread in the entire 18 years the buckets sat undisturbed. Thanks to the nature of radioactive material one speck of that ore could be giving off as much radiation as an entire chunk, and be much more likely to be accidentally ingested. Uranium is an alpha particle emitter, which means it's not particularly dangerous outside your body but is extremely damaging if ingested. I'm glad professionals eventually came through and did a thorough investigation. It doesn't say what levels the OSHA inspectors found, just that "You could hear their meters going off" which means nothing, a geiger counter will click impressively outside on a sunny day.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 5:03 AM on February 20 [38 favorites]


This interview with a nuclear scientist gives a lot more context than the article in the OP. It's not quite as terrifying as it sounds.

I was playing with online dosage converters and medical info, and according to that back of the envelope math kids sitting nearby for half an hour got a chest x-ray's dose, and someone hugging a container for an hour got a CT scan's dose (which is not really a trivial thing).
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 5:04 AM on February 20 [4 favorites]


Aye, but x-rays penetrate the skin. Alpha particles don't.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 5:09 AM on February 20


No, wait, you're right. Almost all the dose is from beta and gamma from the decay products. Sorry.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 5:18 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]


I try to imagine why anyone who handles uranium ore would ever put it in a container that isn't labeled "RADIOACTIVE"...

...and then I remember all the times that I've gone to heroic lengths to get management to appreciate some technical concern, only to throw up my hands in the end and concede to their suicidal demands, because there's basically no other option.

At least I just build websites, instead of handling nuclear materials.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 5:51 AM on February 20 [26 favorites]


While “buckets of uranium ore sitting neglected in plain sight for decades” is distressing on its face (even if the dangers here were oversold), it’s also weirdly relatable.

I once had a job where I had to clean out my boss's office after he'd been fired, and I found two dead people in his closet.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:58 AM on February 20 [45 favorites]


Were the dead bodies connected to the reason he was fired, or did they just happen to be there for other reasons?
posted by tobascodagama at 6:04 AM on February 20 [6 favorites]


No, we had no idea they were there until after he was fired.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:06 AM on February 20 [17 favorites]


Yeah, you can’t just leave it like that. Were they murdered corpses in a state of decomposition (bad), or two urns full of cremains (still weird but less bad)?
posted by ejs at 6:09 AM on February 20 [24 favorites]


They were cremains. It was a cemetery, and they were supposed to have been scattered but nobody paid their fees (probably because nobody could) and rather than do anything about it he just put them in his closet and forgot about them.

Which was pretty much his M.O. in general (he had a substance abuse problem and wasn't really dealing with life very effectively) so I guess actually it was at least symptomatic of why he got fired.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:14 AM on February 20 [43 favorites]


he had a substance abuse problem
Formaldehyde is a helluva drug
posted by thelonius at 6:17 AM on February 20 [21 favorites]


A little over a century ago, scientists unwittingly made a nuclear promise that humans can't keep: that the radioactive materials we will mine, refine, enrich, and produce as waste will be kept from our air, water, food, topsoils, public facilities etc.

This is possible like dieting is possible: some people for small amounts of time can do it, with much effort, most people most of the time just don't.

Think about those two buckets. Multiply them by billions.
posted by Anchorite_of_Palgrave at 6:28 AM on February 20 [14 favorites]


There’s uranium out there, to be sure. There are some people who will carry a Geiger counter when hiking the Grand Canyon to see what they can get; from what I hear there’s areas where they go off pretty good. If you walk the rim west of Bright Angel Lodge, you’ll pass a fenced off area that has some power poles, etc. That’s the old Orphan Mine - yes, there used to be an active uranium mine right along the rim in the tourist areas. The Orphan Mine is above the drainage for Horn Creek, and hikers down there are told do not drink that water unless you’re in danger of dying of thirst. The water is radioactive. (But the campsite at Horn is really nice.)
posted by azpenguin at 6:31 AM on February 20 [6 favorites]


I'm quite inclined to believe this is a typical case of an office accumulating stuff, it getting forgotten, then some level of "don't let the boss/feds know" CYA.

Not nearly as serious as uranium or cremated remains, but, IT, I see it all the time at my data center. A project will send equipment (servers, swithces (Cisco stuff--you can't buy a power cable for less than $50; some of the gear I reference is $25K or more)) as an "OMG URGENT" situation.

Then, something happens (a rearchitecture, project delay, requirement change, etc.), so it doesn't get racked straight away.

Then, different people go to move on to different projects or leave the company, and ultimately, everyone changes over.

Five years later, I have skids of product that, while we may have spent a quarter million dollars on it when it was new, is basically worthless, and we have to pay to have it hauled off.
posted by MrGuilt at 6:32 AM on February 20 [12 favorites]


I thought the article was terrible. Long and filled with very little information. The bigger the numbers the more frequently they were quoted, along with meaningless scare quotes like ”one of the buckets was so full that its lid would not close.”. Because paint buckets are known for their anti-radiation properties? Actually, they probably stop alpha particles pretty well, but the fine article was a bit ... light on anything as technical as that. You know, stuff they told us about in junior high science class.

Certainly an amazing screwup, though. Once again, “professional managers” to the rescue. Not.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 6:34 AM on February 20 [6 favorites]


In unrelated news, Canyon Man has once again saved Phoenix from his arch-nemesis Dr. Ditch.
posted by Etrigan at 6:37 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]


Readings were zero at a distance 5 feet from the buckets. Zero. So unless anybody used the buckets for a desk chair, it's not likely anybody received an excessive dose. The real problems here are in allowing the stuff into the building to begin with, to have it be inappropriately stored for so long, to do a less-than-optimal cleanup, and then to cover the whole thing up.
posted by beagle at 6:50 AM on February 20 [6 favorites]


Those are still pretty big problems though. It's really just luck that they weren't a couple of feet closer to where the kids were standing. And what about exposure for people who worked at the museum?
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:53 AM on February 20


Agreed, I'm not trying to minimize the problem. But the original AZ Central story misplaces the emphasis entirely (with the headline "Grand Canyon tourists exposed for years to radiation in museum building") and pretty much misses the real problems. (With that zero reading at 5 feet, it's not even likely any museum workers got much of a dose but that should be investigated, certainly.)
posted by beagle at 7:01 AM on February 20 [3 favorites]


Seems like this is a lot more serious for the employees than for people who visited once.

Ok, so a bunch of years ago, I went back to school at CUNY (City University of New York) to study science. On the wall one day there was a poster for "get your radiation safety licence" and I was like hot damn that sounds like 6 really fun 2-hr sessions. (The radiation safety license was for biology students so they could handle isotopic biological markers...nothing really serious, City College is only licensed for isotopes up to Iodine or Phosphorus...stuff that's not strong and has a half-life of days or weeks. Like, most of it you could just dump down the sink, and the rest had to go to the metal drums under the stairs in the basement at the far end of the school...but they only had to be stored for ~6 months until it was safe enough to just put in the trash)
Anyway, the instructor, who was the radiation safety officer for upper Manhattan, told us this story one day which is, um, strikingly similar to this one.

One day (I was in school there approx 15 years ago, and he said this happened about 20 yrs before that, so, 35-40 years ago), he gets a call from the Natural History Museum (AMNH) with a question about a Uranium crystal that they had on display in the gem hall. (The question being "is this, um, safe?) So he goes down there, walks into the room, sees the crystal (I'm guessing some kind of uranium oxide?) that he described as being about 2 feet tall, purple, and in a glass case that had...changed colors and was kinda brownish. So he turns around, walks out of the room immediately, and tells the museum director that he needs to see the time sheets for all the guards that have worked in the room since the crystal was put in there. (Just fyi, the kind of radiation that makes glass turn brown is not the kind of radiation you can safely dump down a sink.) So, they removed the crystal to a room in the sub-sub-basement (the instructor theorized that this was because A) in the time between them getting the crystal and then, the rules for disposing of it had changed to "ridiculously expensive" and B) the thing was probably literally unique, and had significant financial value.) Soo..about 10 years later, he gets another phone call. Apparently, the water pipes in the room had burst due to the fact that the radiation was strong enough to make metals brittle. So that's where we got our assignment: how long can the plumbers work in the room (based on X amount of rads coming out of this thing at X distance) before they've exceeded their yearly maximum cumulative dose (where you're not allowed to handle radionuclides until a year later, because cancer.) The answer? 15 minutes. So, they decided to reroute the pipes completely around the room and to the best of his knowledge (at the time) it's still there. And that's how I got my radiation safety license (that I had laminated because I'm that nerd) that doesn't appear to have an expiration date, so I think I'm actually still qualified to handle radioactive materials. (*at City College, and only up to Iodine)
posted by sexyrobot at 7:21 AM on February 20 [184 favorites]


(Oh also, I have no idea what the result of the looking at the time sheets was...I don't think anybody died, but...)
posted by sexyrobot at 7:23 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]


I just did some BOTE calcs using this. I used 60kgs of naturally occurring ore (That's the mass of 15 gallons of Gummite, according to this, so probably an overestimate), and got a gamma dose at 1 metre of a couple of hundred nSv/h. Even including all the radiation (external on a 1m plane), it added up to 10 uSv/h, so you'd need about 10 hours to get to a chest x-ray, even if all the alpha particles make it out of the bucket, which basically none of them do. Did I misinterpret something?
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 7:31 AM on February 20 [2 favorites]


Readings were zero at a distance 5 feet from the buckets.

I think the article mentions that these readings were taken after the buckets were removed, and still showed significant radiation within that 5 feet.
posted by sexyrobot at 7:34 AM on February 20


I used 60kgs of naturally occurring ore (That's the mass of 15 gallons of Gummite, according to this, so probably an overestimate), and got a gamma dose at 1 metre of a couple of hundred nSv/h. Even including all the radiation (external on a 1m plane), it added up to 10 uSv/h, so you'd need about 10 hours to get to a chest x-ray, even if all the alpha particles make it out of the bucket, which basically none of them do.

Did you use pure U or in equilibrium with progeny ? That's the most important factor as far as external dose is concerned.

Try it and you'll see that with progeny it jumps up to ~ 5 mSv/h. This is because U-238 (which is most of the U in natural ore) doesn't emit much in the way of gamma rays but its descendants - and Radium-226 & daughters in particular - emit lots of high energy photons. Now there's no way to know exactly what the equilibrium state in the ore would be - it probably wouldn't be in complete equilibrium but there's no way there was no Ra-226 in there - but the pure U figure is definitely an underestimation.
posted by each day we work at 7:48 AM on February 20 [7 favorites]


Did you use pure U or in equilibrium with progeny ?
I just picked Ore with the default grade.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 8:07 AM on February 20


Does 0.2% U seem a reasonable value for ore? If so, picking 120g of Uranium in equilibrium still gives me a gamma dose rate of 243 nSv/h., so it looks like the Ore settings use the equilibrium values.

I can only get to 5mSv/h by using 60kg of U, and including all radiation types. Neither of which are reasonable assumptions, are they?
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 8:15 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]


Ra-di-a-tion. Yes, indeed. You hear the most outrageous lies about it. Half-baked goggle-box do-gooders telling everybody it's bad for you. Pernicious nonsense! Everybody could stand a hundred chest X-rays a year! They oughta have 'em, too.

This linked AZCentral article is like everything that's garbage about bad science journalism. I was trying to understand numerically how much radiation was involved. Here's what the article offers:
The report indicated radiation levels at "13.9 mR/hr" where the buckets were stored, and "800 mR/hr" on contact with the ore. Just 5 feet from the buckets, there was a zero reading. The abbreviation, "mR" typically stands for milliroentgen, a measurement roughly equivalent to a millirem, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

...

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission measures radiation contamination in millisieverts per hour or per year. According to Stephenson, close exposures to the uranium buckets could have exposed adults to 400 times the health limit — and children to 4,000 times what is considered safe.
Shout out to the editor who thought it was OK to include the name of a second scale (sieverts) and yet not actually report any numbers in that scale. Gotta wonder why you had to confuse us with both milliroentgens and millrems, too. And great job not contextualizing these numbers for the reading public, not even with the usual "number of chest x-rays" equivalent.

FWIW, background radiation is about 1-2 mR/day, or about 1/100th the number reported "where the buckets were stored". This doses in our daily lives chart is a handy way of understanding the numbers. But really you want to understand the nature of the exposure and the related health risk, which this article doesn't even attempt to do.
posted by Nelson at 8:16 AM on February 20 [10 favorites]


I've found this XKCD chart to be helpful for understanding radiation exposure too.
posted by JoeZydeco at 8:18 AM on February 20 [7 favorites]


stuff that's not strong and has a half-life of days or weeks

Stuff with a half-life of days or weeks is strongly radioactive, not weakly! It becomes safe in short order because it is so radioactive that it promptly destroys itself. Unlike U238, which will keep on being a smidge more radioactive than dirt for gigayears.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 8:20 AM on February 20 [10 favorites]


This is actually a Simpsons episode, right?
posted by Segundus at 8:22 AM on February 20 [4 favorites]


MrGuilt: "Five years later, I have skids of product that, while we may have spent a quarter million dollars on it when it was new, is basically worthless, and we have to pay to have it hauled off."

Rinse lather repeat for 70 years, go through a privatization, three wholesale sales and a bankruptcy and that is where I'm at but the physical hardware like pumps and motors isn't worthless. I just don't know if they are deprecated or some unique spare for a vital system that just hasn't failed yet.
posted by Mitheral at 8:35 AM on February 20 [6 favorites]


What's weird though is that I normally think of Park Service types as being very decent, conscientious people who care a lot about the public. What the hell happened here?

Most are, but like many hierarchies it seems the proportion of jerks increases as you move up the ranks. NPS in general has been facing a reckoning over institutional sexism over the last couple years, and the leadership of Grand Canyon National Park in particular are/were some of the worst offenders.
posted by edeezy at 9:29 AM on February 20 [5 favorites]


In 2017, my husband and I did a road trip from Vegas to the Grand Canyon, up to Moab and back to Vegas. I don't know if we were in this building or not. Later in the trip, we were staying in Moab and coming back from a day trip out to Islands in the Sky, we stopped at an rr crossing to wait for a train to pass. The cars were full of materials from the Moab uranium mill tailings pile. Each container carries between 45 and 95 thousand pounds of material and there were at least a hundred on the train we saw.
posted by soelo at 9:55 AM on February 20 [3 favorites]


A little over a century ago, scientists unwittingly made a nuclear promise that humans can't keep: that the radioactive materials we will mine, refine, enrich, and produce as waste will be kept from our air, water, food, topsoils, public facilities etc.

This is possible like dieting is possible: some people for small amounts of time can do it, with much effort, most people most of the time just don't.

Think about those two buckets. Multiply them by billions.


Then realize that everything you aren't worried about half as much is almost as bad and multiple it by trillions.

The thing that frustrates me about discussions of nuclear safety, is that it is one of the few things we actually understand very well in terms of making people safe. It's also really easy to detect - a Geiger counter can detect radiation in the tiniest and most unthreatening of quantities and is a simple device: basically a speaker with the wires stuck into a sealed tube of gas. I mean we don't keep people perfectly safe, because humans are lazy and screw ups. But we can and do have regulations in place to ensure that zero people should be at increased risk of mortality because of nuclear material. The same can be said of absolutely nothing else.

Take coal power, for instance, as one of the worse offenders. There's a reason
that the XKCD chart JoeZydeco linked has the radiation exposure from living near a coal power plant as three times that of a nuclear plant. It turns out there's a lot of radioactive material in coal deposits that we just set on fire. And use of coal ash as a building material in the US wasn't even regulated until very recently, if it hasn't been rolled back or ignored under the Trump administration.

And radiation is the least dangerous part of using coal for power. The mercury released has so poisoned the entire planet's waterways that the government has recommended for decades that people not eat too much fish. Worse, the mass release of carbon dioxide is causing mass extinctions, with a very real chance of including all humanity.

Or take food production, can you really say that there are regulations in place that try to ensure that no one is exposed to pesticide levels where they will experience increased rates of cancer?

Or plastics - there was this huge outcry over the use of the plasticizer Bisphenol A a few years ago because of its health risks. But even if industry isn't using that specific chemical anymore, there's no reason to expect the chemicals they're now using as a replacement were required to be more stringently studied for adverse health effects than BPA was when it started getting used.

Or microfibers from synethic fabrics. We don't even have a good grasp of what the health effects of those are! And yet we are flooding the environment with them.

If it would get any of these environmental problems would be treated with half the serious that nuclear materials are, I'd take one of those buckets home and cuddle to sleep every night. Of all the promises that science has made over the decades, I think that nuclear one might be one of the few we can maybe sorta keep. And do take that with all the pessimism that implies.

Oh antibiotics too, antibiotics are great.
posted by Zalzidrax at 11:18 AM on February 20 [30 favorites]


My father was asked to “test” a new machine at his practice that delivered over 100 x-rays worth of radiation. He did it because they needed someone and because he was over 70 and joked - “I’ve had a good run.”

Almost six months to the day from the test he was dead. Leukemia. Connection? We will never ever know. But you sure can’t help but think about it a little.
posted by 41swans at 11:30 AM on February 20 [6 favorites]


In unrelated news, Canyon Man has once again saved Phoenix from his arch-nemesis Dr. Ditch.

He was taught well by his mentor, Grandma Canyon.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:41 AM on February 20 [3 favorites]


Alright, I work with uranium daily* (I'm a chemist with a specialization in actindies)

Three buckets of uranium sounds like a lot. Its not the sort of thing you WANT to leave laying around. However, I'm with the Verge article linked: Giving kids an extra chest x-ray of radiation is bad. Doubly bad as they are kids and more vulnerable to radiation. However, its pretty unlikely to cause anyone cancer if that is all they get. I'd be more worried about the staff, and if I was on their union I would be pressing to get them free cancer screening for life.

However, remember radiation drops off on the square of distance. So if I'm twice as far away I'm getting 1/4 the amount of radiation. So for example, my uranium and thorium storage drawer was found to be giving off more then the allowed amount of radiation when we put the gigre counter up to it. So we check the nearest chair, which is like, two feet away? Three? and its getting nothing over background. (We still moved a bunch of stuff to storage, as we have no reason to keep 500 GRAMS of uranium OXIDE, the most useless thing ever, in the lab. Now the drawer gives off pretty much nothing.)
And even with this, I wear a radiation detector either on my front (where it is supposed to be) or on my belt (if I forget to move it to my lab coat when I put it on). Last I checked, going into and out of that drawer for years, I had no measurable dose of radiation.

Also: how this happens is REALLY easy. Back in the day, people didn't know how dangerous this stuff is, and it was spread EVERYWHERE. Now a bunch of very dedicated people are trying to track it all down and monitor it. They do a lot of very good work, but also cause people like me a lot of headaches when they make me track down every vial that has every passed through this lab, despite it last being seen by a grad student ten years ago, who didn't keep much in the way of records as it wasn't required for natural abundance uranium at that level back then....



*Ok, I'm spending more time on my laptop right now then in the lab, but in theory I work with it daily.
posted by Canageek at 11:44 AM on February 20 [10 favorites]


It's the response that kills me. They realized what they had, so the local workers, uh, moved the buckets away from where the children sit and did nothing else for a while. They happened to mention it at the safety audit a few months later (that must have been an odd thing to casually drop somewhere between "you can't keep this cardboard here" and "that area gets slippery when it rains"), so they called in specialists, who "purchased dish-washing and gardening gloves, then used a broken mop handle to lift the buckets into a truck" so they could dump the stuff in a mine ("I'll just put this over here...with the rest of the uranium"). Then they brought the empty buckets back into the building. And declared mission accomplished.

What were these specialists specialized at doing exactly? Were they incompetent cover-up specialists? They clearly recognized that what they were doing involved danger, because they used a mop handle to distance themselves, but failed to realize that this wasn't a job you can safely or legally DYI with some dishwashing gloves?
posted by zachlipton at 12:06 PM on February 20 [12 favorites]


The cranks in my neighborhood don't know the difference between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. We have terrible cell coverage because every time a cell company tries to put in some extra antennas on a building to improve matters they say "aaargh radiation, we're all going to die!" and they block it. Never mind that it's just harmless low power radio waves. I think a single 40W truck CB radio puts out about as much RF as a whole cell tower.

So because the NIMBYs have kept all the towers out of our geographical cell, all their cell phones are using quite distant cell towers, and with the inverse square law the phones need to put out the full FCC maximum of one watt to reach the tower, all while held against people's heads or in their crotches. So their worry about RF emissions actually causes them to get a lot more RF exposure than people in areas with good coverage whose phones are whispering to a nearby antenna.
It's still safe because it's just one watt of radio, but it makes me laugh.
posted by w0mbat at 12:08 PM on February 20 [15 favorites]


it added up to 10 uSv/h, so you'd need about 10 hours to get to a chest x-ray, even if all the alpha particles make it out of the bucket, which basically none of them do. Did I misinterpret something?

Not unless I'm also missing something. The park's safety inspector wrote that a "hasty survey" revealed outside background radiation levels of 2 mR/hr. According to the EPA, background radiation levels from terrestrial sources vary from "less than .0006 to more than 0.0083 mR/h."

The recorded background levels are many hundreds of times higher than what the EPA provides as normal background radiation. My immediate suspicion was that the safety supervisor was taking a reading given in μR/hr and recording it in mR/hr.

The NRC reports an average annual per-person radiation dose from combined natural and artificial sources of 620 millirem per year. For a park ranger working outdoors at Grand Canyon, they would receive this dose in just a few weeks of work, given the recorded background radiation cited in the report.

I try to imagine why anyone who handles uranium ore would ever put it in a container that isn't labeled "RADIOACTIVE"...

My suspicion is that this was originally collected as a copper ore sample. In the Grand Canyon area, you tend to find uranium where you find copper. My understanding is that most ores here are found in a type of formation called karst-collapse breccia pipes. These sources of copper ore are what drew mining operations to Grand Canyon in the late 1800s. In the early 1900s, the price of copper dropped, and even though our copper ore was super-duper high grade, it was no longer profitable to haul it out of the canyon for processing. Instead, it was more profitable for private interests to start serving tourists using the privately developed resources within the canyon. (This predated the canyon's protected status as a national monument in 1908, and then later a national park in 1919 — in fact, the park centennial is coming up later this month.)

Much of the administrative history of the park in the early 20th century was a process of buying up the private inholdings that dotted the canyon and the surrounding region. (Fun fact: The site of an abandoned asbestos mine on the north side of the river is now owned by the estate of William Randolph Hearst; it's one of the last remaining private inholdings here.)

The Orphan Mine, the abandoned uranium mine where the ore was disposed of, was I believe patented as a either a copper and/or silver claim. The mine was inactive for a long period after the early 1900s, because it was no longer profitable. However, although inactive, it remained a private inholding. In the postwar era, the Orphan Mine was used to extract uranium ore from Grand Canyon, because where you find copper here you tend to also find uranium. In the 1950s and 1960s, you could visit Grand Canyon and leave behind a truck trailing a plume of uranium-ore dust. That sucks! Ore dust in the lungs is, to my understanding, much worse than just sitting next to a bucket of ore. I would worry more about a baby boomer with memories of dump trucks at Grand Canyon than anyone who visited the park museum in the last 20 years.

My suspicion, given the history of the samples, is that they were collected by the park's first naturalist, Eddie McKee, as copper ore samples way back in like the 1930s, then moved to the headquarters building, and then someone was like, "Hey, this is maybe for the museum?"

If I absolutely had to guess — and this is just a total wild-ass guess — the ore is maybe from the Last Chance Mine on Horseshoe Mesa. If you hike the Grandview Trail today, you'll pass by a sign that says "Radiation Area: Keep Out." It's located on an area where there are tailings from the last chance mine, operated by a guy named Pete Berry, who is locally regarded as an interesting character, but in my personal opinion is not nearly as interesting as his brother, who was shot in barroom fight in Flagstaff. The mine is right on the Grandview Trail, and would have been an obvious place for McKee to grab some specimens from. (The Last Chance Mine was also called the Grandview Mine because of its location on that trail.) There are some cool and colorful minerals there. IIRC grandviewite is known to occur there and only there, but I might be wrong about that.

Here's a 1934 story on the Last Chance Mine; I suppose it's also possible that samples were collected by the author of this account. Again, just another total guess. That is a lot of ore to schlep out of the canyon though, so I suppose it's also possible that the ore was removed from the Orphan mine in the 1950s/1960s with the aid of BIG TRUCKS.

A couple friends of mine worked as caretakers at a cabin on the rim of the old Orphan Mine back before it was closed off and most of the structures torn down. They have a story about it being a drafty old cabin, and one winter one of them dropped a pizza they had made, and the pizza was upside-down and ruined, and wow was the other one upset; they were both really looking forward to that pizza.

Ongoing uranium mining outside the park, and the possibility of additional future uranium mining outside the park, remain an issue of concern in Northern Arizona. The aquifer that feeds inner-canyon springs is extraordinarily complex — it's fed by rain and snow-melt on the plateau, and the concern is that mining the plateau could release uranium or other minerals into the water. This is such an ongoing and important issue; it bothers me that the Arizona Republic story would discuss a single bucket of ore in one building, but not the fact that uranium mining requires the transit of literal truckloads of ore.

(Indeed, one of the strange things about the radiation levels reported by the park safety employee is that his background readings are about the same as what the state DEQ estimates for a truckload of ore at the truckbed — 2 mR/hr.)

Anyway. I take people hiking in Grand Canyon for a living. I think it would be cool to do a meetup out here sometime. By the way — the museum collection is awesome, and if you ever have a chance to tour it, please do. It's a research museum — it's not like a walk-through tourist destination — and of six million or so people who see Grand Canyon every year, the fraction who toured the facility is likely between one in a thousand and one in ten thousand park visitors.
posted by compartment at 12:28 PM on February 20 [44 favorites]


This is actually a Simpsons episode, right?

Another fun fact! Long before the Simpsons episode where Mr. Burns employed slant-drilling under the elementary school, the operators of the Orphan Mine proposed a similar thing. "Of course we have the rights to everything under the surface of our claim," they said (in so many words). "But we can also slant-drill (okay, slant-mine) underneath the surrounding park lands."

And everyone was like, "no no no."

So they were like, "Okay, we will just build the ugliest hotel in world history on the canyon wall right here on top of our land." And they called up an architect and ordered up one hotel, extra-ugly.

Everyone saw the drawings, and they were like, "ugh, fine, slant-drill if you want."
posted by compartment at 12:38 PM on February 20 [12 favorites]


A little over a century ago, scientists unwittingly made a nuclear promise that humans can't keep: that the radioactive materials we will mine, refine, enrich, and produce as waste will be kept from our air, water, food, topsoils, public facilities etc.

The amount of human-released carbon and other pollutants we're pumping into the environment is going to kill millions, if not billions, of people over the next couple of centuries. Human-released radioactivity can't even begin to compare to that death count. This kind of scaremongering is completely unproductive.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 1:12 PM on February 20 [4 favorites]


Seems like this is a lot more serious for the employees than for people who visited once.

Children run places they're not supposed to go.
Children touch things they're not supposed to touch.
One container's lid was not closed.
Children lick their hands.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:31 PM on February 20 [3 favorites]


So, they decided to reroute the pipes completely around the room and to the best of his knowledge (at the time) it's still there.

New York Mefites, you've just been given an awesome quest
posted by prize bull octorok at 2:46 PM on February 20 [13 favorites]


I imagine he’ll feel justified in bringing his Geiger counter wherever he goes for the rest of his life—dates, weddings, funerals, etc.

Probably his science teacher in school was all "Well, you're not always going to be carrying a Geiger counter around with you" just like our maths teachers told us about calculators.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:33 PM on February 20 [10 favorites]


By the way, after we discovered the cremains and worked out what had happened, we scattered them as had originally been intended. It seemed the decent thing to do under the circumstances.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:49 PM on February 20 [4 favorites]


Probably his science teacher in school was all "Well, you're not always going to be carrying a Geiger counter around with you"

The science teacher at the local school is a friend of mine! She has a very positive "you do you" attitude, and would 100% support anyone's decision to carry a Geiger counter everywhere. "I love those crazy clicks," I imagine her saying. "How unique!"
posted by compartment at 6:31 PM on February 20 [6 favorites]


What were these specialists specialized at doing exactly? Were they incompetent cover-up specialists?

Top. Men.
posted by Tehhund at 7:59 PM on February 20 [7 favorites]


zachlipton: "It's the response that kills me. They realized what they had, so the local workers, uh, moved the buckets away from where the children sit and did nothing else for a while. They happened to mention it at the safety audit a few months later"

Things have a tendancy to accumulate in this sort of enviroment and 100 years allows for a lot of accumulation. When the low level workers are new it's easy no to question anything and then later stuff has always been that way.

Example from a previous worksite:

M: What's in that room?
OtherEmployee: Oh, some old cleaning supplies; semi functional furniture, that sort of thing.

[Time Passes]

M: I really need an end table; wonder if there is anything I can make work in that store room?
M: Well no end table but here is a 5 gallon bucket of Holy Fuck, Carbon Tet.
M: Uh, OE, we really need to get rid of this stuff.
OE: ya, the last guy said something about that too. *wonders off*
posted by Mitheral at 9:13 PM on February 20 [2 favorites]


I agree that reducing the rate of climate change, and working to ensure as many people, and other species and habitats survive should be our top priority instead of nuclear mitigation. The world has many dangerous things in it besides unstable nuclei that deserve our concern also. cars, and guns clearly kill more, leachate tailings from mining renders more land and water unusable on the order of decades at least.

I also agree the publics amorphous fear of all radiation at any exposure rate leads to biased risk assesments, #not_all_photons. I'm sure lead, arsenic, mercury and asbestos have similarly unnuanced public reputations that interferre with rational cost benefit analyses.

Maybe this particular bucket of minerals may not have killed anyone -genetic damage is probablistic, these exposures may have been low enough and brief enough. Or, maybe not.

But an unsealed bucket of uranium bearing minerals sitting in a public space for decades is emblematic our problem: radioactive materials require active management, continuous custody, have no antidotes, remain potentially lethal for millenia and can not be deconaminated, only quarantined.

The non acute damage goes unnoticed, monitoring is rare outside of select institution and facilities; many stockpiles degrade the systems designed to temporarily contain them, many samples evolve radioactive gases or sufficient heat to vaporize the metals if not actively cooled.

Our old landmines, unexploded ordinance and superfund sites should not causes us to relax about radiation as just another hazard, they should warn us that we are very not good at handling the hazards we make.

If the power goes out and the cooling goes down at a munitions depot, it won't spread timebombs through the air, oceans and our topsoil... for centuries.

Those buckets aren't another chernobyl, but they also not just a pile of bananas or an airplane ride.
posted by Anchorite_of_Palgrave at 10:29 PM on February 20 [2 favorites]


They kinda are a pile of bananas, actually. Only people don't usually eat dirt intentionally.

Radioactive sources used in hospitals that are then lost track of are much more worrying. Such sources have literally killed people after getting into circulation in the past. That's bears concern to me, not so much a few pails of stuff that is, quite literally, the same thing the building was built on top of in the first place.

If anybody who wandered through there happens to have lived downwind of the Navajo Generating Station, I'd be far more worried for their health. If they did, they'd almost certainly have inhaled more uranium than that than they would have if they had been around while the cans were actually being moved.

There are plenty of very real hazards presented by radioactive isotopes in relatively common circulation. For the most part, they are handled well, but we definitely suffer from a lack of preparation in dealing with those times when humans do dumb human things and recovering gracefully.
posted by wierdo at 11:10 PM on February 20 [1 favorite]


they also not just a pile of bananas

They are a pile of rocks, though. And as an NRC web page linked to above notes ...all water on Earth contains small amounts of dissolved uranium and thorium.. I'm inclined to feel more like the symbolism is about the cruel brutality of existence, or maybe that you're damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Though upon reflection, this is possibly because I grew up in a home with a coal stove and have probably breathed in more uranium than most.
posted by XMLicious at 11:10 PM on February 20 [1 favorite]


There's now a follow-up piece written by the same Arizona Republic reporter who broke the story. He quotes a few experts who are skeptical that the ore could have posed a significant safety concern to visitors.

One of the sources quoted in the new story suggests the same possible explanation I did, that "employees who measured radiation levels near the buckets may have misread the results by a magnitude of 1,000."
posted by compartment at 9:25 AM on February 21 [3 favorites]


My entire childhood was punctuated by reports of things like this - Rocky Flats was rumored to be literally dumping radioactive material down mineshafts, and the mineshafts were radioactive anyway, and the groundwater was radioactive. The drinking water in the little town my family now lives in regularly tests fairly high for radioactivity.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:35 AM on February 21


This article about workers exposed to radiation at Los Alamos who got cancer was chilling. There was an almost complete lack of recordkeeping or monitoring employees' exposure.

In 2012, federal health officials decided that those who worked at the lab before 1996 would be presumed to have been exposed to radiation and automatically qualify for compensation if they had an eligible cancer.

Diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma, which his physician has linked to chemical exposure, Mondragon resigned from the lab this winter. The doctors’ visits have consumed his life. His cancer claim, like Chad’s, also was rejected by the Department of Labor, but he was told he would likely be accepted if he were to develop another cancer.

As in, "we won't compensate you or your family for the cancer you got while working at Los Alamos unless you get more cancer."
posted by bendy at 4:22 PM on February 21 [2 favorites]


In other radiological hazard news, Here’s why you shouldn’t cremate radioactive dead people
posted by XMLicious at 2:59 AM on March 2 [2 favorites]


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