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Crew’s Radiation Protection: Steel-Toed Shoes

January 2, 2014
Written by: , Filed in: Medical Ethics
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Somewhere off the New Jersey shore, more than a mile deep in the Atlantic Ocean, lie thousands of barrels of radioactive waste. Somewhere out there, too, lies the hulk of the ship that from the 1940s until 1960 carried that waste out to be dumped.

Some of the crew members who pushed the barrels overboard developed health problems they blamed on radiation. The U.S. Navy says the radiation exposure was minimal. But the only protective equipment the sailors wore, according to one, were steel-toed shoes. And the Navy apparently scuttled the ship rather than selling it for scrap because the vessel was radioactive.

The Tampa Bay Times of St. Petersburg, Florida, told that Cold War–era story a couple of weeks ago. The ship was the LST 519, launched in 1944 and later named the USS Calhoun County. LST stood for “landing ship, tank.” The vessel was designed to transport tanks and other heavy equipment and disgorge it onto a beach through a doorway in the bow.

After World War II, the mission changed. The Calhoun County began picking up outdated or defective military ammunition up and down the East Coast and dumping it at sea. Sometimes the cargo consisted of radioactive waste, packed in concrete inside 55-gallon steel drums.

The Times interviewed more than 50 former officers and crewmen. By their accounts, concern about radiation dosage was casual at best. Andre Vernot, 75, of Columbia, Maryland, was a Calhoun County officer from 1960 to 1962. He said those aboard were issued radiation badges:

When the badge turned purple, that meant you had too much radiation. Our rules were, when the badge turns purple, turn it in and get another one.

Deck logs show that several shipments emitted 17 rems per hour of radiation, equivalent to about 1,700 chest X-rays, the Times said. The crew usually dumped the waste in 6,000 to 12,000 feet of water, the story said, “though several men said in interviews that the ship would dump much closer to the coast when the weather was bad.”

Navy spokesman Kenneth Hess said that the men were not exposed to dangerous radiation and that the ship was scuttled in 1963 not because of radioactivity “but because it was at the end of its useful life.” However, the Times said a December 13, 1962, Navy memo expressed doubt that radiation on the Calhoun County could ever be reduced to a safe level.

In the mid–20th century, shoe stores routinely used X-ray devices to assist in fitting shoes. The Times story (with video footage of the ship in action) offers a fascinating look at the naïveté of those days, and at its possible consequences. One question it doesn’t address is this: what’s going on amid all those barrels at the bottom of the sea?

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