Why do you bother, you will die sometime! That was the incredible remark of the employer when the link was made between my health problems and the handling of small industrial cobalt-56 point sources in 1983. The same can be said about the attitude of legal authorities towards small point source type debris particles with very high activity concentration.
Involved radiation experts concluded that the cobalt-56 incident resulted from a failure to comply with safety regulations. The result was a complete depression of the body, heavy infection of the swollen hands, a lot of hair falling out, mouth infection, teeth loosened and falling out, liver disturbance, stomach aches, and intestinal bleedings. Despite still-existing health problems, it could have been worse − cobalt-56 is a beta-emitting radionuclide with a short half-life and relatively low radiotoxicity.
A criminal complaint was lodged. After 2.5 years of opposition, further prosecution was cancelled on the basis of expected changes in Dutch legislation in 1986. The activity concentration of small point sources was no longer limited. This exemption clause was in conflict with Euratom Council Directive 80/836.
A more dangerous issue in the public domain is the use of americium-241 point sources, which are freely available for purchase. Americium-241 is an artificial radioisotope which is produced in nuclear reactors. The small debris particles of americium-241 oxides − from radioactive Ionisation Chamber Smoke Detectors (ICSDs) − emit alpha radiation with very high activity concentration and very high radiotoxicity. Radioactive debris particles are included in the waste incineration component of the filling substances of asphalt. About 20% of the so-called "fine dirt" in the air along the roads is formed by the wear products of the asphalt and those oxide particles may be inhaled by members of the public. In physical contact with the well-blooded tissue of mucous membranes and lungs, this radioactive dust can cause fatal cancers.
Along with other small point sources, ICSDs were covered by the exemption clause in Dutch legislation. Much later, in 2006, the sale of ICSDs was banned in the Netherlands. Thus the Netherlands joined a small group of countries − including France, Luxemburg and Switzerland − banning ICSDs in favour of safe optical smoke detectors.
Still there are other problem areas, such as when steel waste scraps are recycled with radioactive oxide slag included in the recycled steel. Radioactive particles can become free when machining and can be inhaled.
Returning to my story − my exposure to cobalt-56 point sources in 1983 was the start of a very long road in politics. In 1987/88 the subject was discussed in the Dutch Parliament. The Minister of Environment did not give correct answers and he delegated the subject to Social Affairs and Employment because employment issues were involved. The chairman of the Committee of Petitions refused in the Second Chamber of Parliament to dispute the integrity of the expert institutes involved. The exemptions regarding activity concentrations of small point sources were used to avoid taking appropriate action.
On seven occasions, written questions regarding the activity concentration of small point sources were put in the Second Chamber, but still no correct answers were provided. Questions were also put in the Euro-Parliament, but a Dutch Director General on behalf of the Board of the European Committee protected the Dutch authorities.
In June 2000, the Dutch RIVM Institute released a report with estimates of radiation exposure from consumer goods. The result was bizarre − abnormal applications and handling of radioactive sources were not taken into account because they could not be implemented in an analytical model by these so-called scientists. So those issues were simply forgotten.
In the General Consultation − the formal discussion between the Parliament with the minister − in October 2001, the rigid attitude of the responsible officials in answering the Second Chamber could no longer be maintained and it resulted in the announcement of a prohibition of ICSDs which was eventually enforced in 2006.
The speaker of the Second Chamber noted with satisfaction that the additional exemption clause was no longer present in the new decree − after 15 year of arguing. The minister concluded: "It will be emphasized that the ICSD's are safe and that this ... is not inspired by unsafe considerations, etc. There is no reason for panic at all!"
However the minister agreed that risks associated with incorrect application and handling conditions could be an argument to hasten replacement of ICSDs. Is this ambiguous or what?! An information campaign to inform the public was later cancelled.
A whistleblower acting in the public interest is not appreciated by a multinational. It cost me my job as a mechanical engineer in the European Research Centre of a Swedish multinational in the Netherlands, my house and income.
Appreciation from the political system was also lacking, all the more so as the political system made dangerous errors time and time again. One of the links between corporate power and the inadequate political response was a Dutch senator who was also a member of the board of the Swedish multinational.