Radioactive Cheese Grater Reveals Lack of Oversight

By Isaac Wolf, Scripps Howard News Service 

 Who is in charge of protecting Americans from products made from radioactively tainted metal?

The answer: No one.

 

Officials with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, all said their agencies are troubled by the spread of contaminated metal and items made from it, a Scripps Howard News Service investigation shows.

Several of the agencies play a tangential part in grappling with the issue. But none have the authority to do much about it. As a result, no national accounting exists of the scope of the problem. No one agency is in charge of reporting, tracking or analyzing incidents involving tainted metal products, or in making sure they are properly disposed of.

And when such an incident occurs, the absence of that oversight becomes clear.

Case in point: The discovery late last summer of a radioactive EKCO cheese grater at a Flint, Mich., scrap plant. The Chinese-made grater was laced with the isotope Cobalt-60, and was giving off the equivalent to a chest X-ray every 36 hours.

Estimated to have been in circulation for as long as a decade, the grater likely was four to five times more radioactive when it was made. EKCO's parent company, World Kitchen, of Rosemont, Ill., described the incident as isolated and found no need to issue a recall, spokesman Bryan Glancy said.

It was not the only grater found. NRC documents show that another Cobalt-60-tainted cheese grater had turned up in Jacksonville, Fla., in 2006. The reports do not indicate what brand of grater it was or if it was related to the one that surfaced in Michigan.

Correspondence between agencies obtained by Scripps Howard News Service through state and federal Freedom of Information requests, as well as interviews with officials involved in the aftermath of the discovery, show how disjointed and uncertain the response was -- and how little enforcement power they have.

The cheese grater, in effect, became a regulatory hot potato.

Gregg Dempsey, the EPA investigator on the Michigan grater case, felt frustrated that he lacked the authority even to press World Kitchen to supply more information, much less issue a recall.

Dempsey said he couldn't determine the most basic facts about the radioactive grater: When it was made, where it was made or how many other radioactive graters are out there.

"I'm trying to get World Kitchen to do something," Dempsey said in an interview. "I don't want to tell them how little enforcement authority I have. I wish there was better regulatory muscle."

The amount of radioactivity in a lone cheese grater would not likely be a serious health threat, state and federal officials said. But items emitting low doses of radiation are a growing health concern because prolonged radiation exposure -- even at relatively low levels -- appears to increase the risk of cancer.

After the grater triggered a radiation detector Aug. 25, 2008, at the Genesee Recycling facility in Flint, employees notified Michigan authorities. Three days later, state officials responded and tested the grater's radiation level, said Dempsey, who works in the EPA's Radiation and Indoor Environments National Lab.

Michigan officials asked the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for help investigating, but the federal agency said it had no authority to do so.

The NRC's responsibility extends only to radioactive materials licensed with the agency, according to spokesman David McIntyre. Such licenses are sought by firms and others that want to use radioactive isotopes for research or business.

Because the grater was never meant to become radioactive, it was not licensed, and thus was not on NRC turf. Even if the grater had registered a dangerously higher level of radiation, the NRC would still have no authority over the case. "We would have had no jurisdiction," McIntyre said.

So, the NRC -- created by Congress in 1974 to ensure the safe use of radiation -- passed the potato to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But the EPA, too, denied responsibility for radioactive consumer products.

Correspondence obtained through the Freedom of Information Act shows an oversight breakdown. In an Oct. 22 e-mail to colleagues, EPA health physicist Sara DeCair wrote that no agency is protecting against consumer products tainted with radiation.

"EPA's company line would be that this is not regulated by anyone," DeCair wrote.

A month after the cheese grater surfaced in Michigan, Jack Barnette, chief of the EPA's radiation and indoor air division for the Midwest, told colleagues he didn't know which federal agency should be responsible.

"I'm not sure what EPA's role should be in this, or where the Consumer Product Safety Commission, or Customs fits in," Barnette wrote in a Sept. 23 e-mail to colleagues.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission does not have jurisdiction over radioactive materials and lists the NRC as the agency that does, according to its Web site. Commission spokeswoman Arlene Flecha declined to comment. Department of Energy spokeswoman Casey Ruberg said her agency also has no authority, and pointed to the EPA as the place that does.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, tries to intercept radioactive consumer products at U.S. seaports, airports and border crossings, but has no authority over material inside the country, said Patrick Simmons, director of non-intrusive inspection for the agency.

Echoing officials in the other agencies, the EPA's Barnette said in his e-mail that he thought radioactive consumer products could be a national problem.

"We need to do something to protect people from unnecessary exposures to this product (if, indeed this isn't just a one of a kind situation)," he wrote.

His EPA colleague, Dempsey, agreed, and said Congress needs to determine which agency should oversee protecting consumers and businesses from irradiated metal products.

"It's a Congress issue. Between the NRC and the EPA, there are some issues that are not covered well. This is one of them," Dempsey said. "We're dealing with this on an emergency response level. It shouldn't be that way."

E-mail Isaac Wolf at wolfi(at)shns.com.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com)

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