Back in the 80’s I worked in a photofinishing lab color-correcting strips of negatives. For eight hours a day I sat in a dark little closet inhaling clouds of acetic acid and sulphur. I saw way more brides and grooms smashing cake into each other’s faces than anyone should ever have to look at. Another hazard of the job was working next to big steaming open vats of photochemicals. I had no illusions that my employer did anything for worker safety he didn’t have to, and OSHA , in the Reagan years, was losing what few teeth it ever had.
One day I got a new piece of equipment, an anti-static motorized roller to dust the negatives. Dust is a nuisance in photography because it leaves white spots on the photos. Plastic negatives build up a static charge and attract dust like a magnet. I looked at the dust roller, and on the side was a tri-foil, the universal radioactivity symbol. Underneath were several lines of warnings in fine print.
“What’s this?” I asked my supervisor, pointing at the tri-foil.
“It’s a component.” she said.
“What kind of component?”
Well, that answered that. I didn’t like working next to something that might mushroom cloud if I knocked it off the table, but I just had to sit next to the thing for forty hours a week until I quit.
Inside that ‘component’ was a speck of Polonium 210, the same radioactive poison that killed Russian ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko so horribly when it was snuck into his food. Apparently Polonium won’t hurt you if you don’t ingest it, and when it’s sealed it’s safe enough to work with. But I wonder what the photolab did with the anti-static devices when they wore out. Are they in the landfill, with all the radioactive smoke alarms we throw away?
I heard on the news that Scotland Yard is running around with Geiger counters looking for traces of radiation. They’re testing the airplanes that flew between Russia and Great Britain and all the places poor Alexander Litvinenko ate and stayed. They’ve found traces, but could some of the radioactivity be incidental? Could it be from a discarded super-duper atomic dustwipe or something.
You can buy a Geiger counter online, but I’m not sure I’d want to know, because radioactive trash might be the next pollution scare- our children’s nasty mess to clean up. We are entering an energy crisis, and some people are pushing nuclear power as the only answer. Chernobyl could never happen here, they tell us, because we are different. Trust us.
Still, my experience with business ethics is that expediency wins every time and human error is eternal. It is arrogant and stupid to create more radioactive waste for future generations to deal with when we are not even trying to conserve and find alternative energy. I think the atomic dustwipe is a dumb idea, and as my friend Joyce says, nuclear power is a dumb way to boil water.