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Radioactive Fragments Found Near Playground

November 14, 2013
Written by: , Filed in: Medical Ethics, Pediatric Radiology
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A former U.S. Navy base that’s in the process of being turned over to the city of San Francisco may contain enough radiation contamination to poison children, according to a recently released memo from the California Department of Public Health.

The memo, written in June and updated in September, described the results of a “cursory survey” of soil in a residential area of Treasure Island, an artificially created island in San Francisco Bay. The survey team found radium contamination in five areas and concluded, “Further evaluation should be made of the probability of a member of the public, especially critical members of the population (for example, children), picking up a radioactive fragment and being exposed.”

In an area that holds a playground, public lawns, and apartments, the team found a thin, hexagonal piece of metal about half an inch wide that was highly radioactive. The memo cited a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention radiation fact sheet in concluding that the shard was dangerous:

A one hour skin contact with the fragment could cause radiation burns, hair loss and possible ulceration.

The Center for Investigative Reporting, based in Berkeley, California, revealed the memo’s existence on Wednesday. The center has been chronicling concerns about radiation on Treasure Island as the Navy has cleaned up land that it once used.

Treasure Island was created to hold a world’s fair, the 1939–40 Golden Gate International Exposition. Part of the island became a Navy base that, among other things, housed a nuclear training center and was host to radioactive ships from Bikini Atoll atomic weapons tests. According to the center, “The Navy repeatedly has rebuffed health officials’ demands that Treasure Island be thoroughly vetted for radioactive contamination—a multimillion-dollar job—before it is made available for a planned high-rise development.”

The center said health department e-mails mention that 575 radioactive shards had been found as of 2011. The Navy has suggested that they may be glow-in-the-dark buttons from the exposition or markers from the decks of military ships. “Regulators,” the center said, “have speculated that the shards might have been buried in the soil decades ago to train sailors to use Geiger counters, which measure radiation.”

San Francisco plans to turn Treasure Island into a $1.5 billion mixed-use community.

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