Radioactive package under close scrutiny

By Joan Treadway
Staff writer/The Times-Picayune

A package with radioactive material earmarked for
industrial use arrived at Louis Armstrong
International Airport emitting radiation levels at
least five times higher than U.S. regulations allow,
and state and federal agencies are investigating.

Authorities said Monday they are unsure how many
people handled the package, which was mailed from
Sweden and bound for Source Production and Equipment
Co. Inc. of St. Rose, but said preliminary
calculations indicate that those who did would have
been exposed radiation levels similar to those in CAT
scans, the computer-enhanced X-ray used to detect
abnormalities in the human body.

It isn't clear when the package began emitting excess
radiation, officials said. The package, containing a
large amount of a radioactive isotope called
iridium-192, was shipped Dec. 27 by the Swedish firm
Studsvik via air freight to Charles de Gaulle Airport
in Paris, and then by FedEx to Memphis, Tenn. It
arrived in Louisiana by truck and was retrieved
Wednesday at an air freight terminal by the St. Rose
company, said Michael Henry, a senior environmental
scientist at the state Department of Environmental
Quality in Baton Rouge.

"We're trying to determine the root cause of the
problem and to assess the dosage that might have been
received by baggage handlers," he said.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission also is
involved in the investigation.

Henry said the radiation coming from the package was
"far in excess of allowable limits" in terms of
roentgens, a basic unit of exposure to radiation. The
package was sending out 1 roentgen per hour at a
distance of 20 feet away, while the limit set for the
surface of the package is 200 milliroentgens per hour,
with 1 roentgen being equal to 1,000 milliroentgens,
he said.

Authorities want to check their preliminary findings
to be sure, though "I've never heard of a CAT causing
problems," Henry said.

The material it contained, iridium-192, is sold to
testing laboratories, which use it in radiography to
check welded joints in structures ranging from oil
pipelines to bridges, company President R.D. "Donny"
Dicharry said.

Following normal company precautions, manager Tony
Bustillo checked the package for radiation while still
near the airport, Dicharry said. When Bustillo
discovered the problem, he brought the package to St.
Rose, where it was put into a safe container at the
company's headquarters, and authorities were
contacted, Dicharry said.

Dicharry said that although Bustillo received a
higher-than-usual dose of radiation, it was still too
low to cause him any harm.

In a news release Studsvik said the package was
measured before it was shipped and it "displayed
normal levels of radiation."

It was not among those selected for a U.S. Customs
Service check, said Virginal Dabbs, a spokeswoman for
the agency in New Orleans. The agency checks some but
not all imported merchandise, she said, but the
criteria it uses to make such decisions can't be
publicized for security reasons.

State officials will meet in Louisiana this week with
Studsvik executives on what to do next, Henry said.

. . . . . . .

Joan Treadway can be reached at

[email protected] or (504) 826-3305.

© The Times-Picayune. Used with permission

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