The Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste (CMTW) wishes Gordon Wozniak (Perspective, April 29) would do some thinking about a more serious radioactive problem instead of trying to distract the public with a sermon of his beliefs about tritium-filled exit signs.
Wozniak needs to get his priorities straight. His first warning to the public should be that the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is so radioactively contaminated that it is eligible to be considered for the Superfund National Priorities List for cleanup. The Lab is eligible because the amount of tritiated water vapor found in more than 50 percent of air samples exceeds the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Cancer Risk Screening Concentration. This, despite the fact that in one of the years looked at, the National Tritium Labeling Facility (NTLF) was closed for at least six months.
Wozniak, a Lab employee, when he warns of tritium exit signs in the flatlands being filled with tritium gas (doesn’t the Lab have exit signs?) conveniently fails to inform the public that tritium gas is a different order of hazard magnitude than the tritiated water vapor expelled from the NTLF’s stacks. Tritiated water vapor, unlike tritium gas, can be absorbed through the skin and lungs, and is 25,000 times more biologically harmful than the tritium gas (Journal of Health Physics, Dec. 1993, Vol. 65, p 598). The body cannot distinguish between ordinary water and tritiated water. That’s why tritium is used for labeling drugs, insecticides and pheromones in experiments testing the effectiveness of these substances in the body.
Furthermore, when tritiated water is absorbed within the body it may become organically bound. Organically bound tritium is 250,000 times more biologically harmful than tritium gas (Kirchman et al, Journal of Health Physics, 1971, Vol. 21). This is the reason children and pregnant women should stay away from the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and the Lawrence Hall of Science, because children and the unborn fetus are more vulnerable to the effects of radiation. Tritium can cause a female fetus to be born with fewer eggs than normal, thus affecting that female’s future reproductivity. Tritium also causes low sperm count, leukemia and other genetic mutations which may skip a generation.
We appreciate Wozniak putting CMTW on the map. However, we want him to know that the Committee’s mission “is to eliminate toxic contamination of soil groundwater, plants and the atmosphere through remediation and by drastically reducing and eventually eliminating the generation and storage of hazardous, radioactive and radioactive mixed wastes.” Therefore, it is obvious we are concerned about other sources of radioactivity and not just tritium.
The Lab’s representative also states “all air leaving this building is filtered.” However, tritium cannot be filtered out. The Lab, in converting tritium gas to tritiated water, captures some tritiated water on silica gel, but being extremely volatile, both tritium gas and tritiated water escape through the stack, only 110 meters from the Lawrence Hall of Science. As far as regulatory agencies go, the California Department of Health Services and Department of Toxic Substance Control have no jurisdiction over radionuclides, of which tritium is one. Our critic claims that the U.S. Department of Energy, which owns the Lab, and the U.S. EPA conduct regular reviews. However, those reviews consist of merely looking at documents provided by LBNL which does its own sampling, i.e. self-investigation. Nevertheless, the EPA is now conducting a site “investigation,” also based on LBNL’s own sampling, to determine whether to place the Lab on the Superfund National Priorities List for cleanup. The Precautionary Principle is in order here, that is, “When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”
Gene C. Bernardi is co-chair of the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste. She has worked as a research sociologist for UC Berkeley and the USDA.