The Navy has completed the final round of inspections and cleanup of the last traces of the radioactive metal called radium-226 in Building 5 at Alameda Point. The aircraft hangar complex is where the Navy refurbished its planes, including repainting tiny instrument dials, switches, and markers with glow-in-the-dark paint that contained radium.
Radium is a naturally-occurring element found in miniscule amounts in soil and water posing no health risk. Its risk comes from ingesting the element regularly, such as in industrial settings.
The middle of Building 5, in the mezzanine area, is where radium-226 luminescent paint was applied to aircraft dials and other devices from 1941 to the mid 1950s. The Navy plans to begin removing the radium contamination from the mezzanine area in December of 2012 or January of 2013.
The harmful health effects of radium were not understood in the mid-20th century. In fact, just the opposite was the case. Hundreds of products were marketed that touted the health benefits of radium, including skin creams, bath salts, and even “growth-inducing” plant fertilizers.
It’s no wonder that paint waste was dumped down storm drains in those days. That’s what happened in Building 5. It ended up in storm drains leading to the Seaplane Lagoon and the lagoon itself. By 2010 the Navy had either removed or cleaned the drains leading to the lagoon. By spring of 2012, the dredging of the Seaplane Lagoon was completed.
There remain only three areas of concern for radium contamination at Building 5 – the mezzanine painting area, some storm sewer lines under the ground floor slab, and the old industrial waste line under West Tower Ave. The Navy’s recently-proposed plan for leaving radium contaminated drain lines in place has been criticized by the city and the Restoration Advisory Board for being inadequate.
Plans for removing radium paint stains from floors, walls, and ceiling areas have received little public attention, however.
The scanning survey
The photos that accompany the Navy’s scanning survey say more about the obsolete condition of the mezzanine area than they do about radium. Most of the contaminated areas are small patches, which are marked by spray paint and photo outlines. Class 1 surveys covered 100 percent of floors and walls up to six feet. Class 2 surveys covered 50% of areas above six feet. Floors and walls were scanned with a cart-mounted device designed to eliminate human variations in scanning distances. Hard to reach areas were scanned with handheld devices.
Areas that were scanned included the paint shops, instrument shops, pathways from the instrument shops to the first floor staging areas, as well as buffer areas around those rooms and the ventilation system.
Radium 226 poses a health risk when ingested. The radiation is relatively low, but since the distance to cells within the body is effectively zero, the impact is high. And it’s effects are relentless, since it is not easily expelled from the body.
The mezzanine area is in the area also known as the Breezeway, which runs east to west between the two hangar areas of Building 5. Hopefully this lead paint contaminated architectural oddity will be torn down so that we can more readily attract businesses here and to the surrounding areas. It has an easily identifiable wooden wall on the western side, marking it as one of Alameda Point’s most prominent eyesores.
In the mid 1950s, the radium paint operation was moved across West Tower Avenue to Building 400. This building will undergo radioactive paint remediation at the same time as Building 5.
Click on any photo below to enlarge and play slideshow.
Photo sampling of survey areas within Building 5.
Scanning equipment being used in other buildings at Alameda Point.
All photos are Navy photos, except for exterior photo of Building 5 Breezeway.