Dust revisited: Hot particle study unresolved

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By Roger Snodgrass

PICURIS PUEBLO – The principal investigator of a community monitoring study looking for radioactive particles of dust around Los Alamos, spent part of an hour in this high mountain pueblo Wednesday, following up on some of the issues he has raised.


Marco Kaltofen, president of Boston Chemical Data, who authored a July 2007 study, made some brief remarks and answered a number of questions from local residents during a Community Radiation Monitoring Group meeting, an ongoing public forum on off-site radiation concerns in the community.


The study was financed on a shoestring by the Government Accountability Project. Tom Carpenter, formerly with GAP, now executive director of the Hanford Challenge, and a co-author of the report, told the group that citizen monitoring was an important alternative perspective because government agencies and contractors “are driven by regulatory requirements,” and sometimes miss things that aren’t spelled out in their standards.


More than 30 people including local residents, officials from Los Alamos National Laboratory and the New Mexico Environment Department, attended the meeting in the Tribal Government Building.


Picuris, since the days of the Cerro Grande Fire, has considered itself a downwind community, as does Dixon in the Embudo Valley. The Embudo Valley Environmental Monitoring Group organized the meeting and assisted in the earlier study.


Kaltofen, who is now working on his PhD at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, declined to respond specifically to miscellaneous criticisms of his data and his interpretation of the data from officials of Los Alamos National Laboratory at the time the study.


Kaltofen’s emphasis was not so much on long-term averaging of radioactive exposures, but on unusually hot particles that he found in various accumulations of dust, mostly from indoor samples, where years of deposits can sometimes build up.


LANL’s responses to the study at the time, while disputing some of the data, argued that the radioactivity measured during the survey in November 2006 was largely a product of atmospheric testing and naturally occurring background emissions, mostly radon.


Kaltofen said Wednesday he had a lot of confidence in the analytical laboratory where his samples were processed, but that there were always disagreements on how to interpret it.


“Some of the results gave us questions as well,” he said, which has led to another round of sample taking during this visit and what he described as a more focused investigation.


He began his talk by asking the question, “What does all the data mean?”


There are many different sources of radiation and the fact that even bananas have traces of radioactivity often comes up in public meetings, he noted.


He said dust is an elusive culprit and merely knowing the levels of radioactivity was not enough information.


“We’ve tried to look at the dust particles as individuals,” in order to distinguish which of them came “from your yard, your neighbors’ yards, from the Saharan Desert of Africa, from nuclear tests in the South Pacific, and yes, some from Los Alamos, too,” he said. “We’d like to be able to give more detailed information on where the radiation comes from.”


Mike McNaughton, a laboratory environmental scientist who was one of those responding to the 2007 report, said after Kaltofen’s talk that there was little in this presentation that he could disagree with. McNaughton said he planned to give a presentation on several follow-up studies that have been done.


While disagreeing with 2007 report’s conclusions, McNaughton previously expressed his thanks to the researcher for raising an interesting avenue of investigation. The lab has meanwhile followed up with a series of studies that will be presented next month.


Among other investigations, McNaughton installed two sets of multiple radiation detection devices at the Los Alamos Monitor for three months each since early this year and has also investigated findings at the New Mexico Environment Department’s office in White Rock, two of the locations that were flagged with relatively high readings in the report.


A parallel investigation that an NMED official said they were working on last year has yet to get off the ground.


The public concerns expressed by residents at the meeting were centered on the risk of radiation in their own environments.


A woman who collects medicinal herbs, “remedios,” had an observation on the likelihood that certain kinds of plants might collect radioactive dust in certain ways.


“The mullion is a fuzzy kind of plant,” she said. “It seems to collect the finest kind of dust ... It makes me sad to think it may be collecting nuclear toxins.”


She said other plants are good at shaking things off and it might be useful to search the soil around them rather than the plants themselves.