Such a harmless looking thing as an elevator button can apparently emit radiation. What counts is what goes into its making.
At least 20 workers in a factory in Chimilin in France are said to have been affected by exposure to radioactive buttons. Though the precise nature of their injuries is not clear, radiation exposure in their case is considered low.
The buttons had been supplied to Otis by French firm Mafelec which, in turn, sourced the materials and components from four Indian companies.
"I received a call from my counterpart in the French regulatory board and was informed of their findings. We immediately set up an inquiry and traced the origin of the material to the Khopoli foundry," confirmed Dr Om Pal Singh, secretary of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB).
Singh added, though, that this is a global problem that was neither restricted to India nor very uncommon. "What is vitally needed is a stringent check at every step to counter such incidents," he said.
Pranay Gordia, managing director of Vipras, admitted that the chain of events had ended at his foundry but said that it was a steel plant and had only made the steel bars, not the final lift buttons. Besides, the bars were made from scrap that Vipras imports from various sources, he said.
"We only recycle scrap, we do not generate any scrap. We are in the process of finding out where this particular scarp came from. It could be one of the many countries we import scrap from - it would not be proper to name any one right now," he said.
Vipras supplied about 10 tonnes of steel to SKM that further processed it for the lift buttons.
Goradia said that despite regulations being in place for checking the materials for radioactivity, these had obviously not been adhered to either in India or abroad. "It's easy for the western world to say that the radioactive metals have been traced to India but the fact remains that the products went into France and also outside it to the US without any of the checks being conducted even at the most obvious points like ports. I have been in the business for 12 years and this is the first time I have experienced anything like this," he said.
Vipras has since installed a machine to check radioactive emission so that such an incident does not recur. "Henceforth we will carry out our own emission checks," said Goradia.
After France's Nuclear Safety Authority detected the exposure, Otis removed hundreds of buttons installed in about 500 elevators all over France and also the US.
The buttons contained traces of radioactive cobalt-60. The health risk to the workers exposed to the radiation, though, has been described as "extremely low."
However, it is also reported that the event has been classified at level 2 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) for radiation events, due to the exposure of more than ten persons in doses exceeding the regulatory limit for public exposure.
New Delhi-based environmentalist Gopal Krishna told the rediff website, "In France, the 20 workers who suffered the radioactive radiation have been found and are being treated our Environment Ministry, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and Labour Ministry here must trace the Indian workers who must have suffered due to radiation while working with the metal scrap (from the scrap yard, re-rolling mills to the lift steel button manufacturing) that was contaminated with radioactive material. The failure of the ministries concerned is too stark to remain unnoticed."
Even today, he says, radioactive material-laden ship Blue Lady is being dismantled by migrant workers from Bihar, UP and Jharkhand with manifest criminal callousness of the agencies at Alang in Gujarat.
Asked about the type of radiation that may have spread across India, Krishna explained, "External exposure to large sources of Co-60 can cause skin burns, acute radiation sickness, or death. The magnitude of the health risk depends on the quantity of Cobalt-60 involved and exposure conditions such as length of exposure, distance from the source (for external exposure) and whether the Cobalt-60 was ingested or inhaled. Medical test can determine exposure to Cobalt-60, but it requires special laboratory equipment that are not routinely available in hospitals."
Many believe that enough is not being done by regulatory authorities to enforce the relevant regulations.