The Tucson Tritium Trials

Forced into bankruptcy by Arizona bureaucrats, invaded by the National Guard, a small Tucson watch-dial factory fell victim to hysteria over radioactivity.


Tritium. That's trit'-e-?m. Most people have never heard of it. It's a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, and it was recently the downfall of a small manufacturing plant in Tucson, Arizona.

American Atomics Corporation used tritium to make luminous watch dials and signs. When the substance was found in food and water near the plant in the spring of 1979, four regulatory agencies, a few politicians, and the news media joined forces against the "tritium-belching monster." They won, in a manner of speaking: the company went broke and folded in July 1979.

But even that wasn't enough to allay the fears about tritium in their midst. In October, Arizona's governor ordered the National Guard to the closed and boarded-up plant to seize its stock of $500,000 worth of tritium, seal it in drums, and bury it.

Yet tritium's radioactivity is of the most benign form. It cannot penetrate uncut skin, and even ingested has never been shown to have any harmful biological effects in humans. The armies ranged against American Atomics Corporation knew all this but chose to ignore it. The Tucson Tritium Trials provide a case study of the crisis-mongering that over the years has aided and abetted radiation hysteria among the public.

Do you remember the old radium-dial watches of the 1930s? Luminescent numerals were painted on the dials so they would glow in the dark. The paint contained a smidgen of radium (1,600 years half-life), which gave off alpha particles that caused phosphorescent crystals to light up. The watch dials were expensive, because radium was rare.

Then the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) began making atom bombs. A waste product of bomb material was strontium-90 (Sr-90); it gave off a hot beta particle in its decay (30 years half-life). By 1950 we were up to our ears in waste Sr-90—until Swiss watchmakers found that, for lighting up watch dials, its hot beta was just as good as the hot alpha from radium. Radium gives off a gas that escapes from the watch; Sr-90 doesn't. When it comes to radiation safety, Sr-90 was much safer than radium.

(We did talk about safety in those days. We all remembered the radium-dial painters of 1926. They tipped their brushes with their lips; some painted their teeth to achieve a radiant smile. A few of them eventually developed cancer (a very few out of the thousands employed). But what newspaper reporter can spell panhemocytophthisis three times in a row? "Cancer deaths" was a good embellishment for newspaper readers.)


The AEC did not have legal control over radium (since it is a naturally occurring substance, not a byproduct of the AEC's activities), but it did have control over strontium-90. Its health physics branch was promoting the great fallout hysteria (what better way to boost its budget?), and Sr-90 was the star performer. The AEC saw a golden opportunity. A new legal gimmick called the Worst Possible Scenario could convince Congress that to protect the public the AEC needed more control over radioactive substances.

Suppose, for example, that a farmer broke his strontium-dial watch while pitching hay to his dairy cows? And a cow swallowed that watch dial, and an American mother nursing her baby drank that cow's milk? Sr-90 is radioactive; everybody knows radiation causes leukemia; 3,000 babies die of leukemia every year: Swiss Sr-90 watch dials must be banned from import. And they were. (Radiation does cause leukemia—but only at the dose you would get from swallowing about a trillion watch dials.)

The luminous-dial industry was in a tizzy until science came to the rescue. By this time the atom bomb had been replaced by a bigger bang for the buck, the hydrogen bomb. To make the H-bomb we had to have lots of H. H-bombs don't use your ordinary garden variety of hydrogen-1, or even double-heavy hydrogen-2; they use triple-heavy hydrogen-3, called tritium. We were making lots of H-bombs; hence we needed lots of triple-weight hydrogen, and we had to keep on making it because radioactive tritium decays away with a 12-year half-life. Soon tritium was running out of our ears.

Radioactive tritium gives off an extremely low-energy beta particle. It is too weak to go through a single cell in the human body, but if you coat the inside of a small glass tube with a thin luminescent paint, then fill the tube with tritium gas, the weak beta only has to hit the surface to light up the crystal. Thus production of the hydrogen bomb, the most dangerous man-made weapon, spins off the safest radionuclide conceivable. The luminescent watch dial industry was ecstatic over this safest (and least-expensive) continuous luminescence.

If a thousand such watches were crushed in an earthquake and a dairy cow ate all of the residual tritium, who could say it was not natural tritium, let alone blame it for causing 300,000 cases of cancer (the number had gone up by this time)? Even better: the United States was producing tritium; the Swiss were not.


During the 1960s a small plant, American Atomics Corporation, set up shop in Tucson to manufacture self-luminous light sources. It had a couple of hundred employees. When you hire a couple of hundred, you expect an occasional incompetent. If you're not under civil service, you fire him. He then goes to the state unemployment agency to collect his reward.

On June 10, 1978, an employee in the Tucson "tritium plant" spilled some liquid on his jeans and did not follow standard clean-up procedures. On his weekly urine check he tested out at 600 microcuries per liter; 28 is the maximum permissible level. (Tritium's radioactivity is so weak that a microcurie is thousands of times below the level of biological effect. The lowest dose to have caused minute biological effects in mice is 70,000 microcuries per liter of drinking water for a lifetime. No effect has ever been demonstrated in humans. The Environmental Protection Agency, using computations that no one has ever been able to trace to a recognized authority, uses 0.02 microcuries per liter as their safety standard for drinking water-but only if you drink three liters per day for a whole year. See box, p. 33.)

Because the employee had not followed the plant's strict safety precautions, he was fired. At the state unemployment agency they asked why he was unemployed, and he answered: I quit because of unsafe working conditions.

(At this point, you must understand radiation safety regulations. To use, possess, store, buy, or play with radioactive substances in Arizona, you must first have a license from the Arizona Atomic Energy Commission (AAEC). Following the dictates of mother NRC in Washington, the AAEC says you must post a four-foot sign on the door to the restrooms telling every employee that he or she is being exposed to nuclear energy and may sue at the drop of a hat.)


Following standard bureaucratic operating procedure of never making a decision that can be bucked to another agency, the employee was passed on to the state OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), which had safety jurisdiction. Following standard bureaucratic operating procedure, they bucked it back to the local OSHA, which, following standard bureaucratic operating procedure, bucked the question to the Arizona AEC.

The discharged employee had also observed large amounts of water with tritium being dumped into the public sewer system. Following standard bureaucratic operating procedure of dividing responsibility when you can't buck it, this was obviously a job for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Washington was alerted, and then the AAEC sent an inspector to the plant on June 25, 1978. The inspector found no unsafe practices. The urine specimens of all employees, monitored once a week, showed minimal levels.

The Tucson newspapers were to show a great, but misdirected, fascination with these and subsequent urine tests. The first human studies of tritium excretion were done at Los Alamos in the 1950s. The scientists involved emphasized over and over that urine measurements are not the way to estimate the tritium content of the body. But because there is no good method short of cutting a hole in the belly, the best we can do is estimate from multiple urine samples over a period of months. Whenever you hear a tritium estimate being made from a single sample, pay close attention: you're listening to a liar.

The AAEC inspections, repeated during the next few months, found some picky-pickies such as no locks on the gates and rubber gloves in the wrong waste basket. But the company received a clean bill of health. There was mentioned, however, the matter of total tritium inventory, which was not a question of safety but a question of "noncompliance" with regulations.

On March 9, 1979, the chief inspector inspected and found the picky-pickies had been cleared up, but there was still the unaccounted-for "loss" of tritium in the inventory. Admittedly, by meteorological calculation it did not exceed limits in air and was probably a normal operating loss, but by inventory accounting standards the loss was large. In radiation health physics, rule number one is that you keep track of how much radioactive nuclide enters a system, how much leaves the system, and where it is in between. New emissions-control equipment was ordered for the company.


About this time, something happened that was to have quite an effect on the Tucson Tritium case. The executive director of the AAEC had a falling out with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in Washington over impossible federal requirements regarding uranium tailings. The NRC had him replaced. A new acting director took over, bringing with him a new broom. Regulators do not assist people, the new man proclaimed, but are here to enforce the law. Regulators are police with the power to subpoena witnesses.

On March 30 the company was sent a "notice of violation." On April 4 the new director was quoted in the Tucson Citizen: "I want them to lock up their gates. We're fussing with a technicality. There is no health hazard at all. I'm just enforcing the law."

On May 1 the AAEC called in the EPA expert on tritium, and the newspapers pointed out that the Tucson schools' main kitchen, the "Senior Now" main kitchen, a potato chip factory, and a parochial school swimming pool were all within blocks of the plant. A sample of food from the school kitchen was measured and found within limits, but the papers noted alarmingly that "tritium blows over to the kitchen from the tritium plant emission stacks." In his first test under newspaper fire the new AAEC director said, "The limit we're using is the well-recognized EPA drinking water standard, which is 20,000 picocuries per liter of water."

Note: The recognized standard is actually the international tables. For publication of the EPA regulation in the Federal Register, somebody had pushed the wrong buttons on his pocket calculator, and a new safety standard was made into law. Now everything wet is close to noncompliance with the EPA.

Still, the EPA's new regulations are applicable to drinking water only, and only after a full year's drinking it. But such fine details were beyond the president of the Pima County Board of Health. "Until they know what the hell this tritium does now or fifty years from now they should not allow this contamination.…shut American Atomics."

So far every expert had said that tritium is popcorn, and picocuries hardly exceed zero. The radioactivity was below even the EPA's exaggerated safety standards. But though 20,001 picocuries of tritium in anything may be harmless, it is also noncompliance. Arizona AEC staff were now gathering urine and food samples from all persons living within a block of the plant.

The school district's central kitchen was closed down upon command of the health department. The new AAEC director said the treatment of a child with tritium poisoning was to "send him home and have him drink a case of beer every day." An enchilada from the school kitchen had 10,000 picocuries; a piece of cake had 56,000. The assistant attorney general urged the AAEC to act immediately, not to wait for the citizens "to be either glowing in the dark or dropping dead."


The Arizona Daily Star assigned its chief investigative reporter to dig out the real human facts. (She immediately investigated the spelling of "pico-curies" and got it wrong.) She found a woman, exposed to tritium, who was going into the hospital feverish, tired, and losing her hair. And the family dog was losing his hair. She found school kids going without lunch; one kid prophesied sagely, "You watch—in 20 years you'll keel over."

The governor of Arizona stepped into the limelight, declaring the AAEC investigation "inadequate" and "virtually nonexistent." The Democrats of Greater Tucson called for signatures on a petition to President Carter. The chief of the Environmental Policy Institute in Washington said, "Tritium causes damage to the genetic structure.…that's what causes cancer, mutation, genetic death and so on."

The AAEC offered to do free urine tests on anybody. The public should submit their samples in glass bottles because tritium in water is wet—it penetrates plastic or paper and might contaminate you, reported the Arizona Daily Star. Glass specimen bottles were soon in short supply, but the Star's investigative reporter, no mean marksman she, recommended the use of baby-food jars.

A "major catastrophe" was barely averted when, minutes before the parochial high school swimming team was about to plunge into their pool, the AAEC called frantically from Phoenix with the latest test results, "56,000 picocuries per liter in the pool, and the EPA says 20,000 is the limit." (Washington EPA had misunderstood; they thought it was the high school drinking team.) The pool was closed, and St. Ambrose Parish "might be forced to take legal action."

The general consensus among parishioners was to keep God's help as an ace in the hole and to call on President Carter first. In early June a petition was passed at Sunday Mass. The City Council went to court to stop the criminal nuisance. The AAEC announced a 48-hour deadline on public urine-sampling tests. The Pima County Environmental Health Clinic had seen a stream of 90 people a day dropping off urine samples, swimming pool water, and black olives.

Unlike most states, Arizona does not have representation in the US Senate. It does, however, have a congressman who visits Tucson quite often. Mo Udall declared the tritium story "incredible" (which it was, but not in the way he meant, of course). He promised a hanging, but only "after reviewing the facts" against the culprits in a courtroom with gun belts removed. It's the Code of the West.


This was the new AAEC director's first chance to wield power. He set up a kangaroo court, euphemistically known as a "public hearing": AAEC staff would be witnesses, the commissioners would be judges. The attorney general's office would prosecute, and five intervenors joined the prosecution: the city, country, school district (kitchen), St. Ambrose Parish (swimming pool), and the Senior Now Generation (kitchen). The victim, incidentally, would be allowed a defense counsel.

At a hearing closed to the public, the AAEC commissioners passed their first law: shut down the plant and then hold the hearings. The next morning at the first public session, a few hours were spent arranging and rearranging the tables to accommodate the press. An NBC cameraman had the final word, "Don't bother my lights or we'll cutcha off." Some anti-nuke demonstrators were nasty, and some of the plant employees, whose jobs were endangered, wanted to be heard. And so a second law was passed: the public will shut up. During the opening statements, a third law was passed, giving a clue to the impetus behind the hearings. One of the commissioners spotted a cigarette being smoked in the audience. With fanatical zeal the hearings were suspended until the primary cause of all cancer was banished.

On June 18 the president of the local chapter of the Arizona Public Employees Union announced that seven cases of cancer, including four deaths, had occurred among kitchen workers since 1976. The EPA's chief advisor fanned the newspaper suspicion: a dose of from 1,000 [!] to 120,000 picocuries per liter for a year would cause about one more case of cancer during that period, he told the newspaper.

The commissioners heard six full days of testimony from the prosecution; the AAEC ordered the plant not only shut but sealed, the water solidified and buried under federal control. On July 12, after almost a month's prosecution, the now-broke company folded. The EPA and the NRC gracefully stepped aside to let the AAEC rejoice. A 56,000-picocurie piece of cake was buried by the EPA with full military honors in a Nevada federal burial ground. The St. Ambrose olympic pool was drained three times (in water-scarce Tucson), and 2 million picocuries were flushed down the drain. The newspapers rejoiced that about 200 people were thrown out of work. Another 200 children had been permanently imprinted with cancerphobia. But this was a small price to pay for permanent release from what was now known as the Tritium-Belching Monster.


Arizona's Gov. Bruce Babbit declared to Mo Udall's House Interior Subcommittee that "tritium literally blanketed the neighborhood." It was rumored the governor was considering evacuation of the neighborhood (this had been powerful politics at Three Mile Island), but nobody would tell him where the neighborhood ended. One of the highest concentrations of tritium had been reported in a prickly pear cactus from outside the AAEC office in Phoenix, 125 miles away.

Professor Sternglass of Pittsburgh (a well-known foe of background radiation) made the startling discovery that premature births were 30 percent higher than normal downwind of Tucson's tritium plant but 14 percent lower upwind. (The discovery is all the more startling when you consider that in Tucson the prevailing winds blow one way in the morning and the other way in the evening.)

But the neighborhood's telephone wires go even crosswind. The school district's central kitchen, a block from the plant, prepares school lunches for the whole city. Parents were calling in by the hundreds and threatening to brown-bag their kids' lunches. The state reimburses the school district 92 cents per lunch served; 0 cents per brown bag. About $30,000 per day was at stake, and the central kitchen had $646,000 worth of food on the shelf. All was contaminated, according to the chief doctor of the County Health Department.

Including the $270,000 stock of canned goods? "Refrain from using any of the foods shown to have levels…above 2,000 picocuries per liter," he ordered. That's awfully close to background. One sample from a can of peaches, which couldn't possibly have been contaminated by "the Monster," measured twice this level. Even the EPA, in its wildest miscalculation, allows 20,000 per liter of water for kids who drink three liters each day for a year. "That's arbitrary," said the wise doctor.

(The doctor wasn't up on the standards of the International Commission on Radiation Protection (the accepted authority)—a million times the 2,000 picocuries—and acknowledged that we don't know what biological effects "could surface five, ten, twenty, or even thirty years down the pike." Thirty years after the Hiroshima atom bomb, a few thousand Japanese who had lived through the thousand million picocurie level knew what happened—namely, nothing. The 120 leukemia deaths you've heard about were at the billion million picocurie exposure level.)


The School Board looked at the log of phone calls from irate parents and saw wings on $30,000 per day. "Dump the whole 25 truckloads of food," they ordered. "No radioactive poison in my dump," said the city manager. "No radioactive poison in my garbage dump," said the county manager. "No radioactive poison in our garbage dump," said the citizens of Sahuarita. But the manager of the University of Arizona's radioactive garbage dump had a different response: "No nonradioactive material can be buried in our dump."

In desperation, the county board of supervisors ordered the food dumped in a county landfill. The nearby citizens complained. The county health director assured them there was no radiation danger. "Then why," asked a concerned citizen, "are we wasting $300,000 of the taxpayers' money?"

After a month of in-fighting, on September 5 a Superior Court judge declared the 44,000 cubic feet of food nonradioactive. The city council yielded. A 12foot-deep trench was dug in a city dump, a wire fence erected, 24-hour guards posted, and a sign proclaimed it the Tucson radioactive dump for nonradioactive food—a triumph of civic logic. The dumpsters refused to comply. At midnight on September 9, in a clandestine military operation, the food was buried 30 feet deep on a deserted bombing range 25 miles southeast of Tucson. The site was unmarked, the truck drivers sworn on a death-oath to secrecy.

The concerned citizen just didn't understand. It would cost the taxpayers nothing. The food came out of the school budget. The kangaroo court hearings had cost $25,000, but that came out of the state budget. The urine testing had cost $40,000, but the NRC would contribute $10,000 and the EPA another $10,000; that came out of the federal budget. AAEC commissioners were contributing their time and effort. Mo Udall's subcommittee's surveillance was pure service to all states without discrimination by race, color, or creed. Governor Babbitt would undoubtedly pay for those telephone bills out of his own pocket. The newspapers would…hmmm…mused the county health doctor—that's a new problem.

A daily newspaper had been tested for radioactivity. It contained about 1.25 picocuries of radium and its deadly daughters. (Radium is about 10,000 times more biologically effective, picocurie for picocurie, than tritium.) With 133,000 newspapers printed every day, 67,681,250 unnecessary picocuries are spread like a blanket over his county each year. The wise doctor marched off to the printing plant determined to stop this plague.

But the final spectacle in the Tritium Case was yet to come. Early in October Governor Babbitt declared a state of emergency and called in the National Guard. Decked out in yellow plastic suits, gloves, and shoe covers and directed by officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Department of Energy, and the Arizona Atomic Energy Commission, four Guardsmen entered the American Atomics Corporation's defunct factory, seized tritium worth $500,000, and sealed it into 55-gallon drums destined for a federal munitions dump near Flagstaff. All this for trit'-e-?m, one of the safest of radioactive substances, unable to penetrate the skin, unknown to be able to cause harm to human beings.

The Tucson Tritium Trials were not simply the result of a few deceptions. Not even a mini-crisis can be caused by liars alone. Three kinds of people are required to inflame the public: the immoral, the amoral, and the unmoral, and maybe a kook or two.

Immoral protagonists know right from wrong but deliberately choose the wrong: the original discharged employee saw an opportunity to get paid for his incompetence; the new director of the AAEC saw an opportunity to make an administrative splash; the newspaper's investigative reporter saw her by-line in print; the EPA tritium expert was dazzled by his sudden fame; the zealot on the commission saw an opportunity to save mankind from cigarettes and everything bad.

Amoral protagonists don't care about right and wrong; they choose the greatest goodies: Rep. Mo Udall chose public relations. The governor of Arizona "protected the people" based on head counts. The news media saw no reason to check facts (or spelling or pronunciation); in their self-proclaimed vigilance over a free society with a free press, they cried "Fire!" in a crowded theater and then reported the number of dead bodies.

Unmoral protagonists recognize no right or wrong: the lawyers saw a fine distinction between legal and illegal; the regulatory agencies saw a glaring distinction between compliance and noncompliance; the health physicists saw a brilliant distinction between a thousandth and a millionth of a maximum permissible dose.


In a recent article in Science magazine, Judge D.L. Bazelon of the Washington, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote a finely reasoned piece, "Risk and Responsibility." Legal "rules of evidence" are different from scientific "rules of evidence," and we ask judges to see to it that both sets of rules are followed. Judge Bazelon expressed confidence that "the courts will continue vigorously to carry out Congress' mandate that decision making be honest, open, thorough, rational, and fair." But what happens when the regulators hold a mock trial, pass the death sentence, and don't even listen to the defense? when Congress is superseded by the regulators? when the courts are relegated to traffic tickets?

On September 22 it became obvious who benefited most from the Tucson Tritium Trials. Like sharks in a feeding frenzy the AAEC voted itself a 250 percent increase in budget. The Daily Star quoted one member: "The legislature will be more amenable to such a large increase because of the public concern." The same can be said for the late AEC's fallout crisis in 1954 and for the FDA's attachment to the buzzword cancer at budget time.

Blessed are the kooks, for they have inherited the bureaucracy.

Marshall Brucer, M.D., a resident of Tucson, has practiced nuclear medicine for 30 years. He has written numerous technical articles and historical vignettes on the use of radioactive nuclides. His latest publication (Sept. 1979) is the Trilinear Chart of the Nuclides.


When the effects of radiation on living tissue are discussed, the measurement unit is the rad, a measure of energy absorbed (see "How We Measure Radiation," page 28). But when quantities of radioactive material are the subject of discussion, a measure of quantity is needed. That measure is the curie, named after scientist Marie Curie. The curie is defined as that quantity of any radioactive nuclide for which the number of disintegrations per second is 3.7 x 1010. Since the quantities of radioactive material involved in most experimental and industrial applications are so much smaller than one curie, the following units are commonly used:

microcurie—one millionth of a curie (3.7 x 104 disintegrations/sec.)

nanocurie—one billionth of a curie (37 disintegrations/sec.)

picocurie—one trillionth of a curie (.037 disintegrations/sec.)

—Robert Poole