An investigation by Scripps Howard News Service reveals that millions of pounds of metal have been contaminated with radioactive material during the recycling process, which can lead to low levels of radiation in consumer products including handbags and tableware.
The contamination occurs because as metal is recycled, multiple products are melted in a furnace to produce new metal sheets. If one piece of this metal contains radioactive material, it can be spread during the melting process.
Among the incidents reported in the investigation, two separate facilities in Florida and Texas melted metal containing Cesium-137 with other scrap metal, resulting in approximately 1.4 million and 500,000 pounds of recycled radioactive steel.
The radioactive recycling also occurs internationally. In 1998, a Brazil recycler shipped 430,000 pounds of Cobalt-60 tainted steel to the U.S. The steel was used in brackets for Reclina-Rocker chairs, but contamination was discovered before the chairs were shipped to stores.
Scripps claims that contaminated metal is also being exported to the U.S. from China, India and even Africa, while the U.S. has no radiation screening process for scrap metal. The same is true of scrap metal recyclers that accept material from consumers and businesses, although many invest in radiation detectors.
Just how much of this radioactive metal has been used in consumer products is unknown. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has documented 18,740 different cases and estimates there are 20 million pounds of contaminated waste. Texas is the state with the majority of those reported incidents.
While Scripps continues to research more examples of radioactive material added to recycled metal, it also notes that the affected products have low levels of radiation. In addition, the average home has other radioactive products, including ceramic pots, granite countertops and smoke detectors.