[ RadSafe ] FW: Sunday "Patriot" Exit signs in landfills could taint water

Norm Cohen ncohen12 at comcast.net
Sun Apr 9 17:39:12 CDT 2006

Coalition for Peace and Justice; UNPLUG Salem Campaign, 321 Barr Ave,
Linwood; NJ08221; 609-601-8583

-----Original Message-----
From: Eric Epstein [mailto:ericepstein at comcast.net] 
Sent: Sunday, April 09, 2006 4:45 PM
To: Norm Cohen
Subject: FW: Sunday "Patriot" Exit signs in landfills could taint water


Exit signs in landfills could taint water

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Of The Patriot-News

Those red and green exit signs glowing from the dark corners of movie
theaters, schools and other publicbuildings are there to guide us to safety
if the lights go out.

But those same signs are illegally showing up in state landfills where their
radioactive contents could emerge as a threat to drinking water supplies.

It's a minor problem now, but state environmental officials worry it could
get worse. 

The problem is the radioactive isotope that lights up the sign -- tritium.
When crushed or broken, the radiation is released and bonds with water.

"Is it a big deal?" asked Mike Pavelek, executive director of the Greater
Lebanon Refuse Authority. "If you have one or two of them, no. But if you
have a whole bunch of them, yeah."

Pennsylvania has about 60,000 tritium exit signs in use, according to
federal records. Each contains enough radioactivity to contaminate a
landfill, state officials said.

Under federal law, unwanted signs are supposed to be returned to the
manufacturer, or one of two special landfills for low-level radioactive
waste. But a recent study by the state Department of Environmental
Protection found that is not happening.

Leachate tests at 54 of the state's 108 landfills revealed that 97 percent
contained tritium, more than half at levels above the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency standard for drinking water. Leachate is water that
filters through the trash. Leachate is collected and treated before it is
released into waterways.

Though the health risk is minimal -- tritium levels fall to a fraction of
the permitted amount once diluted with river or creek water -- DEP is asking
the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to tighten controls on the signs. The
NRC is responsible for tracking all nuclear materials.

DEP asked for better labeling on the devices and for users to conduct annual
inventories and report the results to the agency. But the NRC said current
regulations were adequate to protect the public.

DEP will continue to push the agency to do more anyway, said Ronald Ruman, a
spokesman for DEP. 

Each sign contains 20 trillion picocuries of tritium. The EPA limit for
drinking water is 20,000 picocuries per liter of water. At that volume, one
improperly disposed sign could "easily cause the tritium ... concentrations
we're observing," concluded a DEP report released in October.

Though the agency is not ordering a cleanup of the landfills -- radiation
levels are too low to justify it -- improper handling of the signs can be
costly. In October 1997, New Jersey taxpayers paid $200,000 to clean up a
hospital where a psychiatric patient broke three signs, according to a
report by the federal General Accounting Office.

State officials believe contractors, property owners and demolition
companies are unaware of the restrictions on how the signs are to be

Most of the signs bear only a small sticker indicating their radioactive
components, Ruman said.

"I believe that," said David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety expert with the
Union of Concerned Scientists, which supports the state's call for action by
the NRC. Companies that sell the signs online make little or no mention of
the radioactivity or the disposal requirements, he said.

Pennsylvania landfills are equipped to detect radiation in trash, but the
low beta particles emitted by tritium are invisible to those devices, Ruman

"We measure for radiation but we don't see beta. The steel from the trucks
will absorb all that," said the GLRA's Pavelek.

GARRY LENTON: 255-8264 or glenton at patriot-news.com

©2006 The Patriot-News
© 2006 PennLive.com All Rights Reserved.

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