The risk of radiation poisoning is the furthest thing from our minds as we shop for everyday items like handbags, furniture, buttons, chain link fences and cheese graters. Unfortunately, it turns out that our trust is misplaced thanks to sketchy government oversight of recycled materials.
The discovery of a radioactive cheese grater led to an investigation that found thousands of additional consumer products to be contaminated. The source is recycled metals tainted with Cobalt-60, a radioactive isotope that can cause cancer with prolonged exposure.
In fact, the cheese grater in question contained as much Cobalt-60 over 36 hours of use as a chest x-ray. Even worse, a 430,000-pound shipment of tainted metal was used to create brackets for 1,000 La-Z-Boy recliners, giving off a chest x-ray’s worth of radiation every 1,000 hours.
Other tainted products include chain-link fencing, 900 India-made handbags in the Netherlands and 500 sets of elevator buttons in France and Sweden.
Some changes to U.S. regulation and oversight of recycled materials may be in order. Currently, metal recyclers and scrap yards are not required by any state or federal law to check for radiation in castoff materials, or to report it if they find some. When the radioactive cheese grater was discovered, no government agency stepped up to take responsibility. And when recycling facilities do find radioactive material, there’s no place they can legally dump it.
Currently, a U.S. government program to collect castoff radioactive items has a two-year waiting list, a 9,000 item backlog and is fielding requests to collect an additional 2,000 newly detected items every year.