Radium-226 Paint Leaves Point Legacy

U S Navy photo     A worker holds a radiation scanning tool while another watches a computer module in Building 5 at Alameda Point. More scanning is underway in the background.

 

The Navy has completed the final round of inspections and cleanup of the last traces of the radioactive metal called Radium-226 in Building 5 at Alameda Point. The aircraft hangar complex is where the Navy refurbished its planes, including repainting tiny instrument dials, switches, and markers with glow-in-the-dark paint that contained radium. 

Radium is a naturally occurring element found in miniscule amounts in soil and water posing no health risk. Its risk comes from ingesting the element regularly, such as in industrial settings.

The procedures for handling and disposing of the paint waste during the 1950s and 1960s led to costly and seemingly interminable cleanup projects once the base closed in 1997. This affected at least five other areas at Alameda Point.

During the summer, the Navy’s contractor scanned floors, walls and ceilings to detect paint residue and radium dust. The potentially affected areas were confined to a small part at the center of the 910,000-square-foot complex. This was a follow-up to the 2010 scanning and removal work.

Using scanning bars, varying in length from three to five feet and wired to a computer, data was mapped centimeter by centimeter. Ventilation duct work, insulation, drop ceiling, lighting, drain pipes, paint booth walls, office walls and a brick wall were removed. Pockets of the concrete floor were removed with a grinder down to a depth of one inch and refilled. The Navy set a conservative threshold for clearance to meet residential standards, even though only commercial and light industrial is planned for the building.

Last year the Navy re-routed about a dozen interior roof drains, which used to connect to lines under the building, to a new storm drain connection outside the building. The Navy chose to reroute these roof drains, instead of cutting through the floor slab and removing existing drain lines that were likely contaminated with radium paint waste. It was feared that cutting the floor open would undermine the structural integrity of the building. The under-slab drain lines were filled with masonry grout. 

Up until passage of the federal Clean Water Act of the early 1970s it was standard practice, not just in the military but nationwide, to dump industrial waste material down the drain. In this case, two heavily used drain lines led from Building 5 to the Seaplane Lagoon. 

Seven years ago the Navy removed and replaced more than a mile of radium-contaminated storm drains from Building 5 to the Seaplane Lagoon. Five years ago the Navy completed the dredging of the Seaplane Lagoon near the areas where two storm drains discharged water contaminated with a host of toxic chemicals, among those being Radium-226.

The ramifications from the paint use doesn’t stop in the hangar area. In 2018 the Navy will begin remediation at Site 32, the last cleanup site where Radium-226 is a concern. Site 32 is located on the airfield west of where the Antiques Faire is held. The area is next to the location of the old underground dump, known as Site 1, where the Navy disposed of radium paint waste materials. Radium waste is believed to have entered the Site 32 area when the runway was extended over the old dump in the mid-1950s. Bulldozing and grading of the land spread some of the material around. Site 32, like Site 1, will be covered with three feet of clean soil.

The dire health effects of workers ingesting Radium-226 were well-established in the early 20th century. Between 1917 and 1926, three American watch factories hired women to paint watch dials with radium paint. 

The women, later known as “Radium Girls,” would lick the paint brush tips containing the radium to produce a fine point. This made them extremely ill. They sued the watch companies and won. Their story led to the first occupational health laws. Thanks to the “Radium Girls,” the workers at Building 5 had to follow safety procedures to prevent ingestion of radium. 

Little did the Building 5 radium paint workers know the environmental cleanup legacy of their work that was to come. It wasn’t until a half-century later that scientific consensus established the health effects of chemical waste that was spewed into the environment. Based on the small overall volume of radium paint in comparison to the contamination caused by solvents and petroleum products at the Naval Air Station, radium cleanup has been by far the costliest on a per-pound basis. 

 

 

Richard Bangert posts stories and photos about Alameda Point on his blog at https://alamedapointenviro.com.