Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 13, 2006

Radiation detection on the DC metro

Filed under: Ground Transport Security,Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Christian Beckner on July 13, 2006

I had an interesting ride on the DC metro this morning. The train car I entered had a Metro transit security officer on board, and about a minute after I got on, he notified a guy who was standing right next to me that the guy was triggering his Radiation Detection Pager (I believe it was this model). Its reading jumped rapidly from a level of ’1′ to a level of ’5′. The officer began asking him a number of questions. Did you have an x-ray or other medical treatment recently? No. Do you have a smoke alarm with you? No, he said, but I had changed the battery on it within the previous day. Do you have anything else on your person that might set this off? No. He then waived the radiation detector again, showing him clearly that something on his person – not in his bags – was setting this off.

The train arrived at the next station, and the two of them got off and he waved the radiation detection over him again out on the platform. The passenger got back on the train, and the officer left the car – there was some kind of medical emergency elsewhere on the train – and that was it. End of incident.

As far as I could tell, the officer never resolved why the radiation detector was going off near the guy. And he did not ever ask the man his name, or take down any other personal information.

Is this the right way to deal for Metro officials to deal with incidents such as this? Wouldn’t a better response have been to stay with the guy until this was resolved, and take down his personal information – and if necessary, send an FBI agent out to his primary residence to see if there were any abnormal readings of radiation?

There’s at least a 99% chance that this was unconnected to any malicious threat. But in spite of those odds, I don’t think it was right to simply let this pass without taking further action (at the very least getting his name). And not only for terror-related reasons, but also for public safety purposes – perhaps the guy was being exposed at home or elsewhere, without his knowledge, to some dangerous source of radiation.

So what’s the story? How often do these ‘detections’ occur on the Metro? (I’ve traveled on the metro at least a thousand times in the last few years, and have never witnessed an incident like this before). What’s the policy to deal with them? Was this response within that policy?

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9 Comments »

Comment by kob

July 13, 2006 @ 10:03 pm

This is the first I\’ve heard or read about anything like this. Interesting. Nice report.

Comment by Ballstonian

July 14, 2006 @ 4:52 pm

I like this local coverage of the DC metro. This is a big homeland security issue in our own backyard, and your coverage of the local metro system thus far has been spotty. Please keep covering the metro system in DC. It is a big homeland security problem!

Comment by Barzelay

July 17, 2006 @ 1:55 am

Frankly, it\’s absurd to try to correlate an officer\’s radiation pager\’s reading with terrorist activity. You\’re right to be concerned, but only because something in that individual\’s life might be causing danger to him, and possibly to others who encounter the same radiation hazard. The man should at least be made aware of what in his life, if anything, is causing the radiation.

But to suggest that an FBI agent should be sent to follow up on something that could be caused merely by having an x-ray, or carrying a battery, something so mundane, is to succumb to the worst of the media\’s fear-mongering and alarmist drivel. Can\’t you see it on the evening news: \”Metro radiation out of control. Will it kill you and your children? Find out at 11:00 on Channel 6!\” Or \”Possible radiation attack on capitol\’s subway! Dangerous levels of radiation carried by terrorist suspect! Is it safe to travel? Find out at 9:00 on Channel 10.\”

Comment by Christian Beckner

July 18, 2006 @ 12:25 am

Barzelay:

I don’t think I’m “fear-mongering” here, as you said. I said in my post that there was a +99% chance that this incident was in fact nothing. But I think that it’s the responsibility of law enforcement officials to follow up in a case like this, when they can’t immediately determine the cause of the radiation reading. That means continuing to ask questions until a source can be determined, and it means getting a person’s name. It perhaps means some of the further measures that I suggested, if these steps don’t resolve the case – for the public health reason as much as anything.

p.s. Note that this wasn’t due to an x-ray or other medical exam – the guy who was being questioned ruled this out.

Comment by Ken

August 2, 2006 @ 7:57 am

Note that having an x-ray recently, a recent routine medical exam, or carrying something simple like batteries will not set off a radiation pager (an old radium dial watch would!). Having a medical procedure where a radioactive substance has been introduced into your body will certainly set of the alarm from many yards away (e.g. radioactive technetium is used for for heart stress tests). My guess is that someone else on the train was radioactive (most likely for the above reason) and this person was being mistakenly blamed; once this person and the officer got off of the train the mistake was clear.

It’s hard to argue that the officer was at fault; approx. 1 in every 5000 riders (average for US & Europe) has recently been treated with isotopes & is thus hot for a few days to a few weeks. Taking everyone’s name would be fruitless.

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August 8, 2006 @ 7:43 pm

[...] A man on the Metro sets off a radiation detection device for reasons that aren’t apparent, an eye witness report at Homeland Security Watch. Fire alarm sends Pirates of the Caribbean to Davy Jones’ Locker. Sour N Sweet Also featured on The Express. High praise for Cowgirl Creamery at Suburban Tasteland. Where To Eat When You are Nearly Broke: Arlington Edition III dcfud Cheap Eats Challenge – Al Crostino. A Capitol Life. If you were on 8th & E St., Thursday there was The Biggest Paella on Earth, reports Lonnie Bruner. Photo. [...]

Comment by Scriven King

August 17, 2006 @ 8:07 am

As a cop, I try to never second-guess another cop. I think the cop did the right thing from the very beginning. Obviously, this individual didn’t arouse too much suspicion from the officer’s original questions or else the officer would have detained him. The officer gave him an “out” at the beginning of his field interview. He asked if anything he had, would set it off. The subject could have easily have said he worked with radiation alot at his job (i.e. x-ray tech or nuclear studies at a university). Upon getting a call about a very real medical emergency, the officer dismissed the subject and assisted with his dispatch as he is sworn to do.

By the way, street cops have no means of asking the FBI to drop in on a guy’s house because his probably over-priced and very flawed issued equipment went off on a guy who didn’t arouse any real suspicion to begin with. I admire what you do here with writing about broad homeland security issues, but I would probably leave the street cops alone if you’re not “on the job”.

Comment by HARRY MCHUGH

September 2, 2006 @ 12:07 am

Comment to Mr. King: As a designer of the radiation detector mentioned, I’d like to say that the device is not necessarily faulty and is not overpriced. In fact, the profit margin on these devices is much lower than on most consumer products. Radiation detection is complex, as the previous comments noted.
Please don’t blame the instrument as the cause of a difficult situation. Thanks

Comment by L Scarboro

July 28, 2010 @ 9:28 pm

I had a stress test yesterday and set off a radiation detector at a metal scrap yard today.The guy from the yard came out from the office with some type of a hand held detector and after testing the scrap iron assured me I was hot. My Dr said he had never herd of this happening but asured me I had nothing to worry about. But what suprised me was that in talking to the guy in the yard I learned that a lot of radieo active materal is melted down and used to make thangs like rebar . Does anyone know what potintal helth problems recycling radieo active materals could cause

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