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April 12, 2001

SteriGenics: The Untold History

By Paul Fehribach <>
March 20, 2001

"Cobalt 60 loses part of its mass, which loss becomes radiation that is absorbed and permanently retained by the customers' products ... the cobalt 60 does not leave the customers' products once it is absorbed, thus it is delivered to the customer..."
-- Actual testimony by SteriGenics in a court of law, SteriGenics v. County of Orange, California, July, 1996

A plain white building stands tucked away at the end of a dead end street in an upper middle class suburb west of Chicago, about a mile from one of the most popular malls in the Chicago area. It looks just like all of the other buildings on this street and those leading to it, with a neatly groomed lawn, landscaped shrubs, and a few saplings striking a pose against sanitary white-washed walls. It could be "Any Company, Inc." but a closer look reveals the squeaky clean name "SteriGenics" next to a futuristic logo on the upper left hand of the structure. Inside, what will be transpiring in the very near future is anything but ordinary.
SteriGenics International, now a subsidiary of IBA (Ion Beam Applications,) a Belgian company with a true global reach, has received what is called a "Grant of Inspection" from the United States Department of Agriculture to begin using gamma radiation to irradiate beef and poultry for the consumer market. Sterigenics International is a company with a very interesting history, every bit as interesting as the history of the irradiation industry, whose torch it has helped to carry for over 20 years. It's a history every American needs to know in the face of the sweeping changes that are blowing in the food industry, and the people of northeast Illinois, and Schaumburg, the clean, vibrant, upper middle class suburb that is home to that plain white building on the dead end street, should care the most.
The company's web site touts that "SteriGenics has been providing high-quality, irradiation services since opening our first facility in 1979." But it doesn't give much else in the line of corporate history. In fact, at first glance, it's difficult to figure out just what the company has been doing for all these years, but a search of Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) documents, particularly SteriGenics' 06/25/97 S-1 (IPO) filing, indicates that SteriGenics is one and the same with Radiation Sterilizers, Inc. At least one Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) document contains the language "SteriGenics, (formerly Radiation Sterilizers,)" as does SteriGenics International's 07/21/97 S-1A filing in the SEC's records. An article in the December 17, 1992 Atlanta Journal and Constitution says, "that company, headquartered in California, is now known as SteriGenics International." This is significant because Radiation Sterilizers, Inc. (RSI) owned and operated the irradiation facility in Decatur, Georgia, where a cesium-137 leak was reported on June 6, 1988 to Georgia State regulators that ultimately wound up costing taxpayers $47 million in decontamination costs.
SteriGenics has historically favored cobalt-60 isotopes as the source for gamma rays at its facilities, but the risks disclosure section on SteriGenics' IPO filing lists ongoing availability, and price stability, of cobalt-60 as a risk faced by the company, since the largest deposits of cobalt-59, the stable form of cobalt that is processed into cobalt-60, are found in places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and the republics of the former Soviet Union, where political situations present an ongoing threat to the availability of cobalt-59 at reasonable prices.
In the spring of 1985, in response to a temporary shortage of cobalt-60, Radiation Sterilizers approached the Department of Energy (DOE) regarding a program in which companies could lease cesium-137 from the DOE for use in irradiation facilities, helping the DOE cope with the vast stores of cesium-137 waste produced at two nuclear bomb factories -- Hanford in Washington, and Savannah River in South Carolina. Transferring this radioactive waste to the private sector has been, and continues to be, the main objective of the DOE's "Byproducts Utilization Project."
The federal government gets rid of some of the most hazardous materials produced in weapons manufacture, and private corporations, who are required under Supreme Court interpretation of the law to "maximize profit for shareholders" get to use it to sterilize or pasteurize all types of consumer products, including gems, medical equipment, food containers, all sorts of food products, and yes, now beef, lamb, and fresh shell eggs. I like private companies as much as anybody, but the DOE doesn't attempt to solve the regulatory question of how the public can be assured of safety in these facilities when private corporations have no other objective under the law but to maximize profits, other than to assure the public that these facilities will be overseen by the NRC. They don't answer the question as to how the NRC can ensure public safety when there have been accidents in the past. Considering the thousands of irradiation facilities the industry foresees popping up all over the globe, one is left wondering where they will find competent people to staff all of these facilities, and how they will be effectively monitored.
According to a spring 1998 article in the Food and Water Journal, when Radiation Sterilizers approached the NRC for a the license to handle cesium-137, the NRC immediately put up a yellow flag. Among the many concerns the agency had was RSI's "wet source" style irradiator that would repeatedly submerge the stainless steel capsules containing the cesium-137 in water, an environment which could, and ultimately did, result in corrosion of the capsules, causing leakage of the cesium, which is, by the way, soluble in water.
To allay these concerns, the NRC agreed to license the facility only if the capsules were set up in a "test" facility for one year, at the company's Westerville, Ohio plant. The DOE and RSI agreed to the test, but lobbied the NRC to forgo it. According to the November 6, 1988 Atlanta Journal and Constitution, RSI company officials told the NRC that RSI stood to "suffer financially" if a full year of testing were required. DOE officials said that the limited test results they had in indicated the capsules were safe. Only one month into the one year test period, the NRC waived the remainder of the test period. The plant got underway a short while later, and it was only a matter of time before disaster struck.
On June 6, 1988, sensors at the plant detected a leak in the pool of water holding the cesium-137 capsules. It would take six months and over $1 million to find the source of the leak. In this ongoing contamination incident, at least three RSI employees were exposed to radioactivity, carrying it on their clothes into their cars and homes, taking it outside the facility. 25,000 gallons of water in the company's source pool were contaminated. It is unclear whether regulators were unable to recall all of the medical supplies, consumer products, and food products that had been shipped from the facility and were believed to have been contaminated in the incident. It would cost Georgia state and American taxpayers $47 million and several years to clean up the site. The Georgia state task force on the incident found in the ensuing investigation that RSI had told the Georgia Department of Human Resources that the DOE had the equipment to isolate and remove a leaking capsule quickly, but that the equipment actually had to be built after the leak was detected.
After the Decatur incident, Radiation Sterilizers, Inc. skipped town and changed its name to SteriGenics International. SteriGenics is referred to as "formerly Radiation Sterilizers" in documents by the NRC, and in some of SteriGenics' own SEC filings. All of the bond debt held by SteriGenics in its IPO filing is under the name "Radiation Sterilizers, Inc." This is also verified by a Name Change Certificate I received from the California Secretary of State, Bill Jones, dated March 16, 2001. This document certifies that Radiation Sterilizers, Inc. filed an amendment changing its name to SteriGenics International on March 2, 1992.
What's SteriGenics been up to since the Decatur incident? Well, for starters, SteriGenics is a nice, clean sounding name. "Radiation" is scary in a corporate name (or anyone else's for that matter.) There haven't been any other major accidents or worker safety violations on the company's record since then. SteriGenics no longer uses cesium-137 in its irradiation systems, but its S-1 filing does not rule it out as a source of gamma rays should cobalt become more difficult (or expensive) to come by. Cobalt-60 is their preferred source, and while it is less likely to spread widely in a contamination as is the water-soluble cesium-137, it can be more dangerous should someone have contact with it since it, as a metal, is far more dense than cesium-137. Many people close to these issues, however, believe it is inevitable that cesium-137 will become the preferred source for irradiators in the future, given the supply problems inherent in cobalt, and the vast stores of cesium-137 waste at the nuclear weapons factories, as well as the DOE's desire to shift this burden off onto the private sector. If the irradiation industry realizes its vision of thousands of irradiation facilities around the globe, there will likely not be enough cobalt to go around, and the cesium-137, and the DOE, are waiting in the wings. In fact, presumably to make sure all bases are covered, The Radioactive Materials License IBA/SteriGenics has from the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety permits them to handle up to 15 million curies of Cesium-137 at the Schaumburg plant.
In 1992, SteriGenics filed a technical assistance request with the NRC to allow an increase in conductivity in the water in the source pool (the pool of water in which the radioactive material is submerged when not in use.) On the surface, this may not seem alarming, except that conductivity, under wet conditions, can be corrosive, and crevices is the source capsules can conceivably contain higher concentrations of conductive materials, accelerating corrosion where it is not needed. Corrosion can also attack the integrity of the source pool itself. Expressing concerns, and setting guidelines to monitor corrosion, the NRC granted the request.
A June 1995 NRC Technical Issues report reports that a cobalt-60 source installed at a SteriGenics facility in 1993, supplied by Amersham International, of the United Kingdom, was found with possible surface corrosion. The 38 sources in that production batch were returned to Amersham, according to the NRC report. Suspiciously, Amersham said that the sources were from a particular production batch that had only been shipped to SteriGenics. This is possible, but there was no question raised about the technical assistance request that was heard and granted three years earlier regarding conductivity in the source pool. It wasn't even mentioned, much less investigated.
In 1996, SteriGenics lost a California Appeals Court decision in the case SteriGenics v. County of Orange [No. G014938. Fourth Dist., Div. Three. Jul 31.] In 1989, the county assessed property taxes against the cobalt 60 in Sterigenics' possession from 1985 to 1989. Sterigenics paid the taxes but sought a refund, arguing the material was business inventory under section 219 of the Revenue and Taxation Code. Sterigenics maintained that cobalt 60 qualifies for the exemption because it is "delivered to [its] customers as part of its services." Sterigenics explains, "cobalt-60 'loses' part of itself (mass), which loss becomes radiation that is absorbed and permanently retained by the customers' products.... Unlike energy absorbed in the form of heat (which dissipates), the energy absorbed from cobalt-60 by those products permanently alters their energy states and [47 Cal.App.4th 1545] molecular bonds. The cobalt-60 does not leave the customers' products once it is absorbed, and thus it is delivered to the customer as part of [its] regular, nonprofessional services ...." Sterigenics was wrong, but it betrays that the company will make false claims in a court of law only to marginally improve its financial situation.
Also in 1996, SteriGenics purchased some assets from, and made a cash investment in, Radiation Technology, Incorporated (RTI) according to a 13-D filing SteriGenics made with the SEC. Martin Welt, the founder of RTI, had been convicted of conspiracy to defraud the NRC and violating the Atomic Energy Act in repeatedly failing to operate the company's flagship facility in Rockaway, NJ in a safe manner. He was sentenced to two years in prison and a $50,000 fine. The site of the facility was found in 1986 to have radioactive material buried on the premises and was declared one of New Jersey's 50 most toxic sites, in a state with huge chemical and irradiation industries. After taxpayers footed the bill for "remediation" of the site, SteriGenics stepped in and leased the property.
In August 1997, the company raised about $39 million by going public on the NASDAQ at $12 a share. It is listed as part of the "healthcare" sector, emphasizing its medical sterilization services, and its stock price nearly doubles by the end of the year.
On April 16, 1999 SteriGenics' Rockaway, NJ plant had an equipment malfunction when the source rack failed to return to a shielded position. The rack was eventually returned safely to position without any worker safety accidents, according to the early notification SteriGenics filed with the NRC. This was at least the third such malfunction at a SteriGenics plant since 1995.
On June 11, 1999 the company agreed to be acquired by Belgian particle accelerators maker Ion Beam Applications (IBA) for $27 per share in cash, or roughly $214 million. IBA reports in August, 2000 that sales for the first half of 2000 were about $100 million, nearly triple the same period of 1999, and over six times the first half of 1998. Sterilization and ionization were 71% of sales from January to June 2000, but sterilization and ionization only receive 12% of the research and development budget as of June 2000. IBA's operating profit margin declined from 24.8% to 15.6% from the first half of 1998 to the same period in 2000.
In September, 2000, SteriGenics asked for, and was ultimately granted by the NRC, permission to be exempted from a rule so they would be allowed to use a cell door which would prevent a person in the radiation room from leaving during irradiation, after an NRC inspection found SteriGenics already using this type of door, a violation of regulations. The NRC ruled that this exemption was necessary "so that SteriGenics can carry out its business of irradiating materials in this irradiator." There was no mention of the record, since at least 1995, of the occasional source rack getting stuck in an unshielded position.
Many people believe that while there hasn't been a major accident at an irradiation facility in some time, it is not a question of if there will be another accident in the future. The record of the industry as a whole is not pretty. The NRC has recorded 54 accidents at 132 irradiation plants worldwide since 1974. These accidents include mishaps involving all types of irradiators -- electron beam, cesium-137, x-ray, and yes, cobalt-60. As well, that number is probably low, since the NRC doesn't necessarily have information from the approximately 30 "agreement" states which have the authority to oversee radioactive materials handling sites on their own. Illinois is one of these "agreement" states.
So what about the cobalt-60 accidents? Thus far, SteriGenics hasn't had a major one, but in case a person might think that the huge cesium-137 accident on the company's record can be ignored as long as the company is using cobalt, consider these mishaps, just a snapshot of the industry's record with cobalt-60:

  • In 1974, the chief of radiation at the Isomedix cobalt irradiation facility in Parsippany, N.J., was exposed to 400 rems of radiation, putting him in the hospital in critical condition.
  • In 1976, leaking radioactive water was flushed down the toilet into the public sewer system at the same Isomedix facility. Years later, during a complete plant decontamination, the source pool, toilet, and toilet pipe were found to be radioactive. Isomedix is the same company that successfully petitioned the FDA to legalize beef irradiation.
  • In September 1977, a worker at a Radiation Technology plant in Rockaway, New Jersey, was exposed to a near-fatal dose of 150-300 rem due to broken "personnel access door interlock system," which protects workers from radiation by automatically lowering cobalt-60 into a safety pool if they sense the presence of workers. After more than 30 NRC violations - - including one for throwing radioactive garbage out in the trash - - Radiation Technology president Martin Welt was convicted in federal court in 1988 of conspiracy, violating the Atomic Energy Act and four counts of making false statements to the NRC.
  • In 1979, in Hawaii, a cobalt-60 irradiation facility jointly operated by the Atomic Energy Commission and the Hawaii Department of Agriculture was found to have radioactive contamination throughout the facility, and outside on the roof, downspouts, and front lawn.
  • In June 1986, two International Neutronics executives were charged in federal court with covering up a radioactive spill that occurred in December 1982 in Dover, New Jersey, when 600 gallons of radioactive water leaked from a cobalt-60 pool onto the floor.
  • In 1993, in Maryland, a judge ruled that Dickerson-based Neutron Products is liable for 5800 Maryland Department of the Environment violations, including several instances of elevated radiation levels on property adjacent to its cobalt-60 operations, worker overexposures, and improper storage of radioactive waste.

The future is a big question mark for the irradiation industry, although by latching onto a large and rapidly growing company such as Ion Beam Applications, SteriGenics seems to have garnered itself a bit of security, ironically, by selling itself.
Perhaps the bigger question in all of this is not whether there is a possibility or even a likelihood of a radioactive incident in the Village of Schaumburg, near a popular shopping mall, but what it is that SteriGenics and their colleagues wish to do to our food for their profit. It's ugly. The first thing that must be recognized is that the FDA, in approving this process for "pasteurizing" food, was responding to political pressure, not scientific fact in regards to irradiated food. In fact, the FDA cited over 80 studies in its major irradiation rulings since 1986 that the agency's own scientists had dismissed as "deficient." According to a report by Public Citizen, the agency has systematically ignored evidence that irradiated food can be toxic and induce genetic damage, and the evidence is compelling. The science has been well established over more than 30 years of research, in numerous studies, that irradiated food has caused premature death, tumors, cancer, atrophy of reproductive organs, reproductive disorders, immune system damage, chromosomal damage, pituitary cancer, internal bleeding, and a whole host of health problems in lab animals fed an irradiated diet. It is true that most of these studies were flawed, but fair is fair. The FDA used flawed studies to approve irradiation, so how can they criticize or omit other flawed studies that point to its dangers? The science just does not support the notion that irradiated food is safe, as proponents in the government agencies and the irradiation and nuclear industries would have us believe.
A recent, state of the art study, which is, unlike so many other studies on irradiated diets, scientifically tight, was performed at the prestigious Federal Nutrition Research Institute in Karlsruhe, Germany and published in 1999. It studied the genotoxicity of a compound known as 2-dodecylcyclobutanone, a chemical that is created in food that is treated with ionizing radiation. The study, actually co-funded by a pro-irradiation groups, the International Consultative Group on Food Irradiation, a United Nations-sponsored organization that promotes food irradiation worldwide, found that the chemical caused "significant DNA damage" in the colon cells of rats that ate the substance. No excuses here. This study was modern in every way and conducted in a rigorous manner.
The most disturbing fact of all, facility safety and food safety aside, is that there are completely nontoxic alternatives available right now. Researchers at Kansas State University have developed a new steam treatment system that eliminates 99.99% of Listeria in ready-to-eat meats. There are no questions surrounding the toxicity of steam (water,) at least not that I've heard. Researchers at Cornell University have found that by simply feeding cattle hay instead of grain for the last five days before slaughter, a one-million fold reduction in the presence of acid-resistant E. coli O157:H7 can be achieved. Ozone has been extremely effective as a sanitizing solution the past, and it will be in the future. More study is needed on some of these techniques, but why rush headlong into the gauntlet of irradiation when we know there are other ways of tackling the problems faced by our food supply?
Another great alternative to irradiation is safe food handling practices, which have largely been thrown out by the meatpackers over the last twenty years in favor of a cheaper, unskilled workforce and faster production lines where meat is infected by feces, pus, vomit, sores, scabs, tumors, and the like. Federal meat inspectors have been stripped of their ability to do anything when they see contamination in a plant. E. coli only has emerged as a major problem in the last twenty years. A real viable alternative is to back up a little bit, slow down the lines, and get the feces out of the meat. Public health is more important than meat industry profits, isn't it?
SteriGenics currently operates 20+ irradiation facilities in the U.S., China, and Thailand. And has a joint venture in Indonesia. These facilities currently irradiate spices, gems, medical equipment, and food packaging, in addition to other materials. Any one of these irradiation plants can be converted in little time to meat and poultry irradiation.
On a bright, clear summer day, a family sits down to lunch in the food court at the Woodfield Mall, just around the corner from the SteriGenics plant. Dad likes burgers, so do mom and the kids. Maybe the burgers have seen the beam. No way to know. As they eat burgers different from the ones they have eaten all their lives, they invite new radiolytic chemicals into their bodies that have never been in food before, risking a health crisis down the road without even knowing it. Mom wasn't asked if this is what she wants for her family. Outside, birds are singing, trucks are whizzing by, and a stone's throw away, the meat for dad's barbeque next weekend is under the rays.

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