Saturday, January 1, 2011

Ridgewood Site Is Radioactive By Robert Pozarycki - | Times Newsweekly

Read original...

Health Dept. Probes Former Chemical Factory

Despite claims that there is no immediate danger to the public, city officials are investigating the extent of radioactive contamination at and in the vicinity of a former factory on the Brooklyn/Queens border in Ridgewood, it was announced.

The New York City Department of Health (DOH) is in the midst of the second phase of its survey and study of the former Wolff-Alport factory located at 1127-1129 Irving Ave., which is now occupied by an auto body shop and an adjacent grocery store.

According to local activists, Wolff-Alport participated in the Manhattan Project that led to the development of the atomic bomb during World War II. Based on information from the DOH, the contamination does not appear to be related to the project.

The study, which is being funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Brownfield Assessment, aims to determine what locations in the immediate area of the site are contamination and how the problem could be remedied.

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Wolff-Alport produced thousands of pounds of a sludge containing thorium while extracting rare earth elements found through the processing of monazite sand.

Thorium is a radioactive element with a half-life of 14 billion years, more than three times the age of the earth. Handling thorium in small amounts is considered safe, but prolonged exposure to thorium and its radioactivity could increase the risk of cancer, according to the EPA.

Workers at the factory—perhaps unaware of the presence of radioactive material—dumped the thorium sludge in the nearby sewer regularly from 1945 until the fall of 1947, when the Atomic Energy Commission ordered that the company halt the practice. During inspections conducted during the 1970s and 1980s, Health Department personnel detective radioactive contamination inside the sewers where the sludge was dumped and in parts of the former Wolff-Alport factory.

As recently as July 2009, during the first phase of the study, workers found elevated gamma radiation levels in the sewer under Irving Avenue between Cooper and Eldert streets. While the levels were not considered hazardous to anyone’s health, it confirmed the existence of deposited radioactive material.

Samples of soil and groundwater along Cooper Avenue/Street, Irving Avenue and Moffat Street near the former Wolff-Alport site are in the process of being collected, and the Health Department is seeking agreements with local home and business owners to conduct tests on their properties.

The data collected through the study will be analyzed by the Health Department “to evaluate potential health risks to the area’s workers and residents,” according to a DOH information sheet. “The agency’s report and recommendations will be made available once the surveying and sampling are completed.”


According to information from the Health Department provided to the Times Newsweekly, Wolff-Alport processed monazite sand between the mid-1940s until the 1950s through a complex method that involved the use of numerous chemicals such as heated sulfuric acid. This was done to extract rare earth minerals used in a wide variety of products from magnets to camera lenses.

Prior to that, the company took part in the Manhattan Project as part of the World War II effort, it was noted during Community Board 5’s Dec. 12 meeting in Middle Village. District Manager Gary Giordano and Chairperson Vincent Arcuri noted that the factory was one of many businesses across the city which help produce parts for the creation of the bomb that was successfully tested in Alamogordo, N.M. in June 1945 and duplicates that were later dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in August of that year.

To prevent the project from being derailed in the event of an enemy attack, the work was spread out across the city rather than being concentrated in a single area, Arcuri noted.

In processing the monazite sand toward the end of the war, the company produced a sludge which contained thorium. After the AEC ordered factory workers to stop dumping the radioactive sludge into the nearby sewer, Wolff-Alport agreed to concentrate the waste as a precipitate and then sell it to the commission for its own use.

According to a report issued in 1987 by the U.S. Department of Energy on the Ridgewood location— found on the DOH’s website—the company sold more than 52,771 pounds of the sludge to the AEC through 1951. The contamination found during the 1970s and 1980s in the buildings and the soil and sewers adjacent to the Wolff-Alport site was likely the result of the processing and storage of the thorium sludge, the report indicated.

When the Energy Department’s report was issued, the level of radiation did not exceed exposure limits, which have since been lowered, the DOH noted. A joint survey conducted by the DOH and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) near the Irving Avenue location found that radiation exceeded normal background levels, prompting a more in-depth study.

The Health Department estimated that a worker at the Wolff-Alport site received a dose of about 120 miliRems (mR) of radiation in a single year. By comparison, the average New Yorker gets a dose of about 360 mR annually, the result of a number of factors including altitude, natural background, medical procedures and fallout from past nuclear testing and the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine in 1986.
Moreover, a person who receives a CAT scan of their entire body receives an instantaneous dose of 5,000 mR of radiation, the maximum amount an adult can safely absorb in a single year, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Alpha rays are initially given off by thorium as it decays; over time, the element begins to emit gamma radiation. Since the alpha particles cannot be absorbed by human skin easily, handling small amounts of thorium over short periods of time is considered safe.

Prolonged exposure to thorium can lead to increased risks of lung, blood and pancreatic cancer since human organs are more susceptible to increased amounts of radiation.

Two environmental consultants— Louis Berger and Associates and Co- Physics Corporation—are conducting the probe on the DOH’s behalf. Workers from the DOH are supervising the process and members of other agencies— including the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)— are assisting in the probe.