Young children contaminated by radioactive pollution from old military planes at a popular Scottish coastal resort face a “significant” risk of getting cancer later in life, according to a new health study by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa).
Babies or toddlers who accidentally swallow one of the tiny “hot particles” that keep polluting the foreshore near a yacht club at Dalgety Bay in Fife could get radiation doses hundreds of times higher than the maximum permitted from nuclear reactors.
Earlier studies have underestimated health hazards from the pollution, Sepa warned. New tests have shown that more of the radioactive particles are likely to dissolve and stay inside the body than previously thought.
Sepa is upping its pressure on the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to take responsibility for the pollution. That means finding out exactly where the particles are coming from, and paying for them to be cleaned up.
And this weekend Sepa has been backed by a former senior MoD safety official, who accused the MoD of “prevarication”. Fred Dawson, who worked for the MoD for 31 years before he retired as head of the radiation protection policy team in 2009, said public agencies had been playing a game of “pass the parcel” with the Dalgety Bay pollution.
The health risk was “most worrying”, and action to tackle the problem at source should have been taken when it was first discovered more than 20 years ago, Dawson argued. “In my view the MoD should take immediate responsibility for the contamination and fund all work necessary to make Dalgety Bay beach safe for public use,” he told the Sunday Herald.
Dalgety Bay was the site of the old Donibristle military airfield, where a large number of aircraft were dismantled after the end of the Second World War in 1945. The dials in the planes were coated with luminous, radioactive radium so they could be read at night.
The dials were removed and incinerated in a “bash, burn and bury” policy, along with other waste. The resulting ash and clinker was dumped as landfill to help reclaim part of the headland on the bay.
Radioactive contamination in the area was accidentally discovered in 1990 by a monitoring team from the nearby Rosyth naval dockyard. Since then Sepa says that at least 1,650 pieces of radioactive debris, from the tiniest specks to lumps as big as half-bricks, have been detected and removed.
Surveys show that the foreshore around the sailing club slipways is being continuously re-polluted by about a hundred particles a year. Experts think the particles are being swept ashore from the headland by sea currents.
Sepa’s new health assessment, published online, concludes that the pollution at Dalgety Bay poses “a significant hazard to health”. The dangers will persist until the source of the particles is found and stopped, it says.
Experiments suggested that up to 25% of the particles would dissolve in the stomach and stay in the body, compared to up to 15% in previous tests. The resulting radiation doses for very young children could be hundreds of times higher than the one milliSievert a year limit for members of the public from the nuclear industry.
Sepa pointed out that the radium-266 in the particles had a half-life of 1,600 years so would remain dangerous for centuries. According to the agency’s radioactive substances specialist, Paul Dale, there was a one in 91 chance that people would encounter contamination on the Dalgety Bay foreshore.
The odds might be higher because attractive-looking remains of aircraft dials could be picked up, put in a pocket and taken home. Flakes of radioactive paint could then lodge under a fingernail and be transferred into the mouth, Dale suggested.
The Dalgety Bay Sailing Club insisted that it took the pollution very seriously, and had moved warning signs to make them more visible. “The club has informed its membership and re-emphasised the hygiene advice already given,” said the club’s spokesman, David Burnett.
“The club will fully participate in all future discussions regarding management of the issue as well as actively investigating practical solutions for long-term remediation.”
The MoD insisted that it took safety very seriously. “We have yet to see the latest findings from Sepa,” said a ministry spokeswoman. “Should significant risks present themselves then Sepa has the necessary statutory powers to address these.”