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Nuclear Scanning Catches a Radioactive Cat On I-5 594

Jeff recommends Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat's story from a community meeting with Northwest border control agents. Seems their monitoring for dirty bombs from the median of Interstate 5 caught a car transporting a radioactive cat. "It turns out the feds have been monitoring Interstate 5 for nuclear 'dirty bombs.' They do it with radiation detectors so sensitive it led to the following incident. 'Vehicle goes by at 70 miles per hour... Agent is in the median, a good 80 feet away from the traffic. Signal went off and identified an isotope [in the passing car]. The agent raced after the car, pulling it over not far from the monitoring spot.' Did he find a nuke? 'Turned out to be a cat with cancer that had undergone a radiological treatment three days earlier.'"
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Nuclear Scanning Catches a Radioactive Cat On I-5

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  • Re:doesn't add up (Score:5, Informative)

    by masonc ( 125950 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @04:34AM (#22842952) Homepage
    Actually I believe there have been lots of similar events. A friend of mine is a member of some service organization and was on a club outing to nearby Canada by coach. On the border crossing back to America, they were stopped at the crossing when the border guards told the driver to shut the coach down and they boarded it. The club members were apprehensive as they had been replenishing the club alcohol stash and had a bit more than the legal duty free limits in the storage areas.
    The guards finally identified one older gentleman and questioned him, only to find out he had been a radiation trace injection four weeks previously. They were cleared and went on their way.
    If they have this equipment at all the major crossings and on the interstates, imagine the cost and the amount of money that has been spent on these type of projects.
  • Re:doesn't add up (Score:5, Informative)

    by clarkkent09 ( 1104833 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @05:09AM (#22843092)
    It has, just hasn't been widely reported. According to this article, there are about 600 radiation scanners deployed around the country and the rate of false positives is so high that the guy in charge of the Homeland Security Dept. nuclear office says they are pretty useless in practice:,2933,257004,00.html?sPage=fnc/specialsections/homelandsecurity []
  • Re:doesn't add up (Score:3, Informative)

    by Detritus ( 11846 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @05:09AM (#22843098) Homepage
    There's a huge difference between being irradiated from an external source and ingesting or being injected with radioisotopes as a diagnostic or treatment procedure.
  • Re:So let's say... (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 24, 2008 @05:36AM (#22843188)
    3. What is the false positive rate of such monitoring?

    Considering the distinct lack of nuclear attacks in the past few decades, about 100%.
  • Re:LOL @ Privacy Tag (Score:3, Informative)

    by Ucklak ( 755284 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @06:53AM (#22843422)
    The cat probably had a thyroid condition [] - like my cat.
    You can give the cat thyroid medication twice daily or zap it.

    The 3 days is kind of strange though. I was told that the cat has to stay at the clinic for a week to get rid of most of the radiation.
  • by retsil ( 763798 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @07:22AM (#22843520)
    The cat probably would have had Iodine therapy. Iodine has a half life of 8 days. You can find more information at []

    It is possible to detect 0.01 MBq of iodine-131 at a distance of 2-3 m. This is a tiny fraction of the recommended discharge level in a patient.
    This means that the cat may have been relatively safe, even though the radiation is easily detectable.
  • Re:doesn't add up (Score:3, Informative)

    by Detritus ( 11846 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @07:30AM (#22843546) Homepage
    Being irradiated from an external source does not make you radioactive, except in unusual situations like being exposed to a neutron flux, which can cause neutron activation.
  • 150 comments so far and no one's mentioned this [] yet from 2002?

    Americans undergoing radioactive medical treatments risk setting off anti-terrorism sensors in public places, and subsequent strip searches by police, warn doctors at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
  • Re:Ha, ha (Score:5, Informative)

    by j-pimp ( 177072 ) <> on Monday March 24, 2008 @07:45AM (#22843600) Homepage Journal

    Now, how do you explain that you've just had radiation treatment to the mindless TSA buffoon who's found you're radioactive?
    What? Oh I get it... because all TSA workers are mindless, buffoons. Just like all blacks like watermelons, Irishmen are drunks, and Italians are in the mob. Of course.

    Yeah I once had a set of RJ45 crimping tools in my backpack that I happened to use as carry on luggage. As I waited on line to go through the TSA checkpoint and remembered they were in the bottom of my bag I was afraid of 2 things (1) the tools being confiscated because they could be used as weapons, and (2) the agents not knowing what they were and detaining me. Well they did attract TSA attention. The woman operating the scanning machine asked me if they were "telephone tools" and I said yes. She asked her supervisor who let me go through with them. So yes bringing strange things through airport security will raise eyebrows, but its not always a one way ticket to Gitmo.

  • Re:LOL @ Privacy Tag (Score:5, Informative)

    by slashqwerty ( 1099091 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @08:00AM (#22843672)
    So then, why haven't a human been caught in this net before? It seems there should be more radioactive people than cats being driven around.

    They have [].

  • by zerofoo ( 262795 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @08:11AM (#22843740)
    My cat was recently treated for a hyperactive thyroid. The vet injected the cat with radioactive iodine and kept the cat in isolation for two weeks.

    After I was allowed to take the cat home, I was told to avoid having the cat sit on my lap, and I had to collect the cat's litter box scoopings and store them outside for two weeks. The vet told me if I discard the litter box contents into the trash, I would probably get a visit from homeland security. Evidently, they also scan garbage, and if they find any radioactive trash, HS tries to figure out where it came from.

    If they trace it back to your house, they will show up with a warrant to search the premises.

    When I told her she must be joking, she told me it happened to one of her clients.

    That's creepy on a bunch of levels - the fact that HS can trace garbage back to your house, and the fact that HS can "pay you a visit" after snooping through your garbage.


  • Re:Ha, ha (Score:5, Informative)

    by GooberToo ( 74388 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @08:34AM (#22843876)
    if you have to travel home to be in hospice near your family.

    I'm just throwing this out there. I know this is somewhat off topic. Just don't forget organizations like Angel Flight [] (West [], South Central [], East [], and North East []) exist to assist ambulatory patients that can't otherwise afford air transportation for specialized, non-local, medial treatment. Of course, they help with other emergencies too, such as after Katrina.

    If you have a medical and financial need, Angel Flight may be able to help you side step financial and time problems created by road travel and the TSA during public air travel.
  • Human example (Score:2, Informative)

    by GreenEnvy22 ( 1046790 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @08:42AM (#22843952)
    Well I can relate one story I know of directly.
    This past summer one of our employees was going from Canada to the US via car, crossing at Port Huron, MI. He was going to a conference in Michigan and had a couple other people speaking at this conference with him. When they got to the border, an alarm went off and they were all hauled into the security office.
    After several hours they were let go after the guards contacted the doctor of one of the women in the car, and confirmed she had indeed ungergone a stress test with the radioactive fluid earlier that day.

    This was the womens own fault as the Doctors office had told her she should not do any international travelling for a couple of days, becuase of this very reason, but she did not listen.
  • by Utopia Tree ( 1040146 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @08:56AM (#22844032)
    But depleted uranium is a heavy metal and would be quite poisonous. This toxicity would overshadow the radioactivity by a great deal.
  • Re:Ha, ha (Score:4, Informative)

    by justthisdude ( 779510 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @09:03AM (#22844080)
    For a little reality check, a friend went in for liver cancer treatments this morning. Mt. Sinai is in New York city, and the treatment involves Yttrium-90, so when the prepped her they told her she needed a note from her doctor because she will probably get scanned and stopped at the Lincoln Tunnel when she goes home.
  • Re:So stupid... (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 24, 2008 @09:41AM (#22844340)
    Enveloping a radiation source within lead or some other buffer is the *exact* reason these detectors would need to be so sensitive to be effective at all.

    To the machine, a leaky cat is probably going to look quite like a lot like a leaky lead canister holding a bit of depleted uranium.

    Lead is indeed dense enough to stop most decay particles, however a lead canister you can transport in your car discretely is not likely to drown out all of the 'noise' - some particles will leak through - and from the perspective of the manufacturer and maintainers of said detectors, this would be just enough to warrant an alarm, giving you warning that 'something is afoot'.
  • Re:So stupid... (Score:4, Informative)

    by Pigeon451 ( 958201 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @09:49AM (#22844414)
    How was the person harassed? The agent pulled him over, questioned him, then let him go. Justified, since they detected radiation source. Doesn't sound like harassment to me. If they ran up to him with guns drawn, cuffed him, questioned him for several hours, then yes, that would be harassment.

    Compare this to metal detectors at clubs or airports. EACH person is individually scanned and searched. Is this harassment? An overstep of people's rights? How many people carrying weapons do they really find? It is a deterrent, as well as a detection system.

    As far as low-tech, agreed, low tech can cause minor problems such as bombing a building and is much easier. A few causalities, makes the news, etc. A nuke going off though, however, that is significant. Destroy a city, widespread panic and fear, international news. Much like the WTC incident.

  • Re:Ha, ha (Score:5, Informative)

    by Muad'Dave ( 255648 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @09:55AM (#22844476) Homepage
    For those that are curious, Y-90 has a half life of 64 hours and decays into (stable) Zr-90 via the emission of a 2.28 MeV beta- particle. It has a fairly high specific activity of 2.5x10^5 Ci/g (naturally, given its short half life). It is mainly produced from Sr-90, which is fairly dangerous if ingested because the body treats it like calcium - it ends up locked in your bones where it irradiates surround tissue - like bone marrow that produces blood cells. Here [] is a datasheet from a supplier - you can get it in activities of 1 Curie! That's 37 GBq.
  • by rrkap ( 634128 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @10:32AM (#22844796) Homepage
    You're probably thinking about the 1983 incident that happened in Juarez Mexico. Part of a piece of cancer therapy equipment fell off when the unit was being transported in a pickup truck. The two guys sold it to a scrap metal dealer. It turns out what they had was a source capsule containing 1000 pellets of Co60. The truck broke down shortly afterward and the now radioactive vehicle gave very high doses of radiation to several people (including the children of the driver of the truck). However the bigger problem was that the container fully broke open at the scrap yard, scattering the pellets throughout (and rendering two of the workers sterile). These pellets were mixed in with steel that was used in furniture for fast food restaurants and in rebar. The incident would probably have gone undetected except a shipment of rebar from one of the foundries that bought steel from the scrapyard was accidentally delivered to Los Alamos National Lab where it set off radiation detectors. The steel, some of which had already been installed in restaurants was recalled and most was accounted for. This was the worst of these incidents that is known about however, such incidents are fairly common (meaning that a piece of contaminated steel is detected by someone every year or 2).
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 24, 2008 @10:37AM (#22844842)
    In the old days, connecting to a UNIX shell (especially over telnet) the backspace character sent ^H instead of "delete". So you'd forget, go to delete something, and end up with ^H^H^H^H^ tacked to the end instead of deleting it.
  • Re:Ha, ha (Score:3, Informative)

    by Idarubicin ( 579475 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @10:58AM (#22845030) Journal

    Now, how do you explain that you've just had radiation treatment to the mindless TSA buffoon who's found you're radioactive?

    This isn't really a new problem. Radiotherapy patients were getting picked up by radiation monitors in the New York subway system years ago. See for example this case [], which involves a fellow who was searched (strip searched) twice in Manhattan subway stations during a three-week period. This was back in 2002. My understanding is that most (American) clinicians are aware of the potential problem, and know enough to send their patients out the door with explanatory paperwork and pager numbers for medical personnel who can explain to police why certain individuals are radioactive.

    Heck, it's been long enough that I suspect most police/Homeland Security officers may actually be familiar with this potential for false positives. Now, I admit that the 'radioactive pets' problem is a new one to me, and there's a large part of my mind that says, "Quit torturing the cat. Let it go. Put the animal to rest peacefully, rather than have it get arrested, detained, and blown up by Homeland Security."

  • Re:Ha, ha (Score:2, Informative)

    by fpi ( 208490 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @08:01PM (#22851576)
    As a Nuclear Medicine physician, I would provide you with a letter/documentation stating that you had received a radiopharmaceutical for diagnostic or therapeutic purposes, the description of the radionuclide including the physical half life and estimated biological half-life (it may clear from your body before it would physically decay away), the exact date and time of administration, and my card and phone number to contact me for any questions. There would be no disclosure of why you received the radiopharmaceutical.

    Yes your medical history is private, but you lose that privilege if you can potentially cause harm to others. For example, if I administer 200 mCi of Iodine-131 (half life 8 days, gamma and beta rays)to a patient for recurrent thyroid cancer, and he agrees to stay at home alone for over a week, yet instead he hops on a cross-country bus sitting hours and hours next to a pregnant lady and small children, then both he and I would be considered irresponsible in protecting the public from unnecessary radiation exposure.

The absent ones are always at fault.