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Thousands of everyday products and materials containing radioactive metals are surfacing across the United States and around the world.
Common kitchen cheese graters, reclining chairs, women's handbags and tableware manufactured with contaminated metals have been identified, some after having been in circulation for as long as a decade. So have fencing wire and fence posts, shovel blades, elevator buttons, airline parts and steel used in construction.
A Scripps Howard News Service investigation has found that -- because of haphazard screening, an absence of oversight and substantial disincentives for businesses to report contamination -- no one knows how many tainted goods are in circulation in the United States.
But thousands of consumer goods and millions of pounds of unfinished metal and its byproducts have been found to contain low levels of radiation, and experts think the true amount could be much higher, perhaps by a factor of 10.
Government records of cases of contamination, obtained through state and federal Freedom of Information Act requests, illustrate the problem...
Today, the nests, which could number in the thousands, are "fairly highly contaminated" with radioactive isotopes, such as cesium and cobalt, but don't pose a significant threat to workers digging them up.
Under special government permits, "decontaminated" radioactive metal is being sold to manufacture everything from knives and forks and belt buckles to zippers, eyeglasses, dental fillings and IUDS.
The Department of Energy (DOE), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the radioactive metal processing industry are pushing for new regulations that would relax current standards and dispense with the need for special radioactive recycling licensing.
By one estimate, the DOE disposed of 7,500 tons of these troublesome metals in 1996 alone. The new standard being sought would allow companies to recycle millions of tons of low-level radioactive metal a year while raising the acceptable levels of millirems (mrems), a unit of measure that estimates the damage radiation does to human tissue.
By the NRC's own estimate, the proposed standards could cause 100,000 cancer fatalities in the United States alone. While the DOE waits for new standards to be released, "hot metal" is being marketed to other countries.
It is extremely important to differentiate a dirty bomb from an atomic bomb. Although dirty bombs do contain nuclear material, they are in no way as powerful or as devastating as a nuclear bomb. In fact, the explosives in a dirty bomb would be far more dangerous than the radioactive material, with most scenarios attributing the bulk of casualties to people in close proximity to the explosion, rather than to radiation damage. While a dirty bomb is certainly nothing to treat lightly, the threat of a nuclear bomb is far more severe