In olden times – that’s 60 to 70 years ago – wrist watches with glow-in-the-dark radium numbers were popular. Whether we wore a Timex or a Rolex, that’s what we wanted. Our hands didn’t fall off .
In those days, many aircraft instruments glowed in the dark. That, too, was accomplished with minute amounts of radium-226. Thousands of World War II crews flew tens of thousands of missions in cockpits with radium dials. Their cancer rate is no higher than anyone else’s.
There is a warehouse containing World War II aircraft instruments at the Salisbury-Wicomico County Airport (SBY) in Maryland. To a warbird purist or museum curator, they are valuable artifacts. To environmental protection authorities, they are hazardous waste.
The warehouse sits on five acres of land designated for airport expansion, but on Sept. 29 the Maryland Department of Environment gave the Wicomico County Council 60 days to submit a plan for “proper” disposal of the material in it. Whether the cost and other remediation requirements will affect those expansion plans is unknown. “We’ll deal with it,” said airport manager Bob Bryant.
Although the land is owned by the county, the warehouse belongs to Chesapeake Airways, which has been there since the 1940s. The FAA required the county to buy the land before issuing a grant for runway extensions and other improvements. The deal included FAA funds to help relocate the Chesapeake Airways inventory. Neither the county, Chesapeake Airways nor the FAA had any knowledge of potential hazards.
Part of the inventory relocation involved trucking some junk to a landfill in Baltimore County, where equipment detected radium-226 traces on the truck, which had been inside the warehouse. That triggered an investigation by state environmental officials.
There are about 3,000 old instruments in the warehouse, Bryant said. Those that are intact are safe, but any with cracked or missing glass could be a problem from flaking paint. The extent of that problem – if it exists – was unknown at press time. We do know that airports at Chino and at North Hollywood, California, are in the midst of multi-million-dollar problems, having been declared Superfund sites by the Environmental Protection Agency for similar reasons: millions of old aircraft instruments were stored there and the cleanup cost, so far, has exceeded $7 million.