The Piscataway Radium Incident


Feburary 1st, 1989

My fasination for radioactivity started very early, at the age of 10 I knew I wanted a geiger counter. I searched high and low for one. I called my science teachers and their friends, no one had one. It wasn't until 8th grade, at the age of 13, when I went to Alma Preparatory School in Zarephath NJ, did I get my hands on an old civil defense geiger counter. It was a CDV-700 made by Victoreen stored away in a box locked in a cabinet. I talked my science teacher into letting me take it home. Well, that was it, it never left my side. I was always monitoring everything. I'd go for walks around my neighborhood looking for for something, anything. I found a few radium painted clocks, but not much more. Well the afternoon of thursday Feburary 1st, my desires were reached, sorta. I had gone to my former grade school where my aunt was teaching, and while waiting for her, my cousin and I scouted about the school with the trusty CDV-700. I still can remember the faint buzz of the high voltage oscillator bleeding through to the audio circuit, being interupted every so often by the click of a cosmic particle or some stray background radiation. As we walked down the corridor the frequency of clicks increased, it didn't take long to realize there was a source nearby. We went into different rooms and halls mapping out the field rates. We finally pinpointed the location of the source to be in what we knew as the "old science closet." Unfortunately, due to the lateness of the day, anyone who had the key for the room had gone for the day.

Thursday, Feburary 8th, 1989

One week later, Thursday - Feburary 8th, I returned to the school and got the science teacher right away. He unlocked the door, and within minutes we found the source. It was just a little metal rod with an obvious handel at one end and a tip at the other.

Seeing as my CDV-700's maximum scale was 50 mr/hr, I held the source by the handel and away from my body. Honestly, thinking the source was not that bad, only being marked "Radium Chemical company," I took it home. A few minutes later I arrive home (my mom was driving), coincidently my father pulled up from work at the same time. Being the proud hunter, I had to display my kill to my Dad. Well my dad wasn't very thrilled, but he trusted me. I took the source down to my lab, which had been converted from my father's old darkroom. I was curious to see if I could make the needle of my CDV-720 Ion Chamber deflect the slightest since I was never able to with any test sources of mine. I turned the unit on to the most sensitive setting(0-5R/HR), and to my jaw dropping awe I saw the needle peg out on the 5 R/HR scale (I think I may have even said a bad word). Well I set the Ion Chamber to the 50 R/HR scale and noted that the field of the device near the tip leveled off at 50R/HR. " OH MY ! What have I done" were my precise thoughts. I knew a lot, but not enough. I had not known about the inverse square spreading law, and I thought that I had given myself a near fatal dose of radiation.

ACT I, SCENE II : "Time to tell DAD, gulp."

Well he actually took it pretty well. He called the local authorities first - they were useless, then he called the NJ Dept of Health - they were even more useless, for they thought my dad was pranking them when he told them the dose readings that I had found. My dad gave up and waited till the next day to call around some more. Meanwhile, I took the source and, using pliers, bent the rod, near the tip, to decrease the linear length of the device. Then placed it into a 1 liter Naglene jar that was completely filled with cement with the exception of a small tube along the central axis of the jar. I placed the cap on the jar, and then placed the jar in a 33 gallon drum of similar description. Except the drum had a 4 inch PVC pipe down the center, and the rest was also filled with concrete. I had made these for fun, never with the intention to use them, but they were quite handy for shielding. They greatly reduced the field of the source, but still not enough. I called it a night !

The next day. Friday, Feburary 9th, 1989

I went to school as usual, worrying all day about my exposure. I kept tugging on my hair to see if it was starting to fall out. I pulled so hard I think it began to come out. My mom picked my up from school at 2:50 that afternoon, and I imediately asked about Dad and if he was able to contact anyone. She laughed, laughed just that certain way; "uh oh" I felt. She said they want to take our house away, because it is contaminated. Oh no, oh no. She continued to say that the task force was on their way to our house as we were also on our way home. You must understand that my mom has seen one too many movies, and likes to be dramatic. Well, sure enough the task force was on their wasy over. About ten DEP and EPA Health Physicists were to come to my house before that long evening was over.

I was greeted by a health Physicist who proceded to ask me many questions over and over and over at the kitchen table. Meanwhile a small group of Health Physicists were gather in my garage where the 30 gallon drum had been wheeled into. It was a rainy and dismal day. I remember wanting to see what was going on in the garage so badly, that finally the Health Physicist interviewing me let me watch from a great distance (in an attempt to keep my dose where it was). After wrapping the drum several times with thick lead sheet, they were ready to pull it out(the source). A couple of techs from Teledyne Isotopes came with a van containting a drum lined with depleted Uranium - very dense material, good for shielding. They backed the drum up to my garage and transefered the source to their better container. Back to the kitchen table. Lots of questions, lots of people. At one point one of the Physicists came up from the basement with an astonished look on his face. "Why he has...." and proceded to list most of my surplus scietific equipment that was gathered in my lab. Well after more questions, and recreating the trip home with the source to the point of where I sealed it in the drum in the back yard, the team of health Health Physicists estimated my dose to be 275 milli-rem, about one years dose for the average person. A lot less than what I thought that I had given myself.

As the Teledyne folks drove away all the needles on all the meters fell to zero, there was no contamination. All the material was contained in the tip. Which I am very lucky of. As Radium decays it emitts alpha particlse which are just energetic Helium nuclie. After a few interactions, the alpha particles lose their energy, then they pick up free electrons (from the metal case, etc) and form Helium gas. This gas builds up in the tip and wants to release. The pressure on the case coupled with the case's radiation damage of 60 years of direct exposure, it is not uncommon for these caps just to pop open and spread their material all over. This would have been very very very bad ! I am so thankful that this did not happen.

There still is spray paint markings on my garage floor where the Health Physicists took measurements in order to determine the amount of activity that was in the tip. They estimated the amount to be 100 millicuries of Ra-226. Which in the 1920's was worth 11,300 dollars. ($113/mgrm of radium)


It was all over from there !

I was hooked on radiation science, nuclear physics, and health physics. I have scince bought several extremely sensitive radiation survey meters, and one is usually just an arms length away. I have been looking for another radium capsule. I go to flea markets, garage sales, investigate old buildings, but in the past 8 years I have not been able to locate another one - certainly not from a lack of trying. I did come very close, I found the canisters that they were kept in, but the actual radium needle had been removed long ago. But I have not given up. I have gone as far as to mount a 5"*5" NaI(Tl) detector in my vehicle connected to a survey meter with an alarm option. But so far this hasn't proven useful.

What do I do if I find another one? Well, I sure as heck am not going to bring it home. But I do have a moral obligation to notify the appropriate authoriets, and I certainly have made a few friends in the DEP Radiation Protection Burea.


Where does one look for Radium ?

Well, scince Radium's use was great in the medical profession, a good place to look in the basement of widows(ers) of doctor's homes, or the doctors childrens basement. Most of the Hospitals have had them removed and disposed of by now, but as of 1990, 65% of America's Ra-226 stockpile is unaccountable for. Old schools, private medical schools, universities, flea markets, garage sales. You get the idea. Maybee even antique shops, old farm houses, etc... Well, if you do know of any, or think you might, feel free to contact me, I will be more than willing to give advice, just be careful, try to remain as far away as possible from these devices.

I have scanned in a copy of the Piscataway Radium Incident report, it is in .pdf format.

I've scanned in most of the newspaper articles regarding this Radium find, they are in .tif format.

My email address is koeth@physics.rutgers.edu