It recently came to light that radioactive steel was being sold on the German market. When customs officers detected a load of contaminated metal earlier this month, they sent it back. But it was too late: Investigations revealed that contaminated steel had already been found in 12 federal states. In Berlin, buttons used in lifts have been found to be made from contaminated steel. Last year, lift buttons made by a French company were discovered to be radioactive, as well as steel clasps on Dutch handbags, German watchstraps and Swedish radiator pipes. The contaminated metal was also traced back to India. Indian officials launched an investigation to discover where the scrap metal originated from. Now there seems to be a similar amount of
Several loads of steel from India have been found to be radioactive
Although levels of radioactivity in the steel from India that has been found in Germany are unacceptably high for some, the Ministry of the Environment has said the general public is not in danger.
Nonetheless, most of the contaminated metal found in Germany is now being disposed of, said Karin Wurzenbacher from Munich’s Environmental Institute.
“It is definitely not advisable to work with that steel,” she explained. “Even an exposure of 24 hours would surpass the annual limit of one millisievert that German radiation laws say is acceptable for the general population.”
Indian workers exposed to high levels of radiation
But the workers in India that work with the steel that is later sent to Europe are exposed to abnormally high levels of radiation.
“The workers in the scrap metal chain -- be it from the India’s shipwrecking industry or other areas -- are all in the informal, unorganised sector and they are the most vulnerable workforce,” said Gopal Krishna from Toxicswatch-Alliance Against Pollution and Corporate Crimes.
Surendra K. Sharma, the chair of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board in India, said that the problems were of an international nature. He said that Indian companies had possibly imported radioactive scrap metal from other countries before shipping it to Germany.
“Now it appears that the scrap that was used during a certain period must have had some disused radiation source, which might have been used for the purposes of radiography in some countries and got mixed with the scrap that was imported by this company.”
“Of course, once it’s melted it will get heavily diluted because it will get dispersed in the entire material, not located only at one point. And that is how the general radioactivity level in the final material is very, very low.”
Environment ministries push for more international monitoring
Germany’s Environment Ministry has issued a statement saying it is currently working towards solving the problems. It will also push for more international checks to ensure that steel imports are safe.
Surendra K. Sharma said India was doing the same: ““We have checked all these industries and advised them to make sure that whatever material they melt does not have any radioactivity. And the final product has to be checked with very sensitive radiation detection instruments before being dispatched to customers.”
But activist Gopal Krishna remained sceptical: ““What is being missed both by the European agencies, be it France or Germany, or by the Indian agencies is that this measuring and detecting radioactive steel is an end of pipe approach.”
He insisted that radioactive material should never enter the recycling chain to begin with. While governments say they are introducing stricter regulations and controls, environmentalists fear that the latest incidents of contaminated steel being detected will not be the last.