St. Petersburg Times--South Pinellas

Alarm sets off post Sept. 11 protocols

County, state and federal agencies rush out to the waste plant to find medical waste emitting a low level of radiation in a sanitation truck.

By MICHAEL SANDLER, Times Staff Writer
Published October 31, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG - Sirens blared Thursday morning when a city sanitation truck set off radiation sensors at a Pinellas County solid waste center.

County employees immediately called the fire department, the Sheriff's Office, the state Health Department and the FBI.

Authorities arrived at the facility at 3095 114th Ave. N. They found an adult diaper with iodine 131, a form of iodine used in hospitals that emits low levels of radiation.

"This would come from an individual getting chemotherapy or radiation therapy," said Elaine Fulton-Jones, a spokeswoman with the Pinellas County Health Department.

This is the second time in 30 days the sensors picked up radiation signals. A few weeks ago, they detected some white powder that came from Oldsmar and is still being investigated.

The sensors have been in place for four years. County Solid Waste Director Warren Smith said officials can remember only two or three other incidents.

In the post-Sept. 11 world, even the slightest alarm is treated as if it were caused by something serious.

"We followed the protocol and it worked," Smith said. "Folks were out in a few minutes, they isolated the truck and (the officials) took it from there."

Smith said the materials have been isolated in three 5-gallon buckets and a cubic-yard container of trash and posed no cause for alarm.

"If someone were to stand right next to the bucket for an hour, you would get the equivalent of a chest X-ray," Smith said.

Iodine 131 is used in hospitals and medical facilities to treat patients, Smith said. Those facilities are instructed to isolate medical waste in special rooms, allowing the material to degrade and become harmless. After enough time, the material can be disposed of like regular trash.

The state office of radiation control, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and St. Petersburg Police Department want to know where the iodine came from.

For now, the waste is being stored in a locked, safe location for 80 days. The Health Department will then return and inspect it to make sure the danger has passed.

- Michael Sandler can be reached at 445-4162 or [email protected]