The Unspoken Truth about Scrap Metal: The Double-Edged Sword

It is no secret that the scrap metal industry is thriving in the United States today. Over the past few years, this industry has grown in leaps and bounds and has proven to be a huge boon in more ways than one. Scrap metal recycling has brought with it new jobs, better waste reduction and has significantly contributed to the country's economy.

Everywhere you look, you will find people telling you that recycling scrap metal is the way to go. And for the most part, it really is. It reduces pollution, saves a lot of energy, cuts down on mining, and as an added (colossal) bonus, gives the economy a huge boost. In fact, in 2010 alone, the scrap metal recycling industry processed 74 million tonnes of scrap steel, creating a scrap market of over $22 billion.

Scrap metal recycling centers are flourishing like never before. So much so, that a lot of them are branching out to other countries outside of the United States. Sims Metal Management, an American scrap metal recycling company, for instance, has managed to spread across 5 continents with over 2500 locations worldwide.

However, what we don't hear is the dark side of scrap metal recycling. And as it turns out, it's a high risk and potentially harmful process.

The Dangers of Scrap Metal Recycling - Radioactive Contamination

According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), there are 3 ways by which radioactively contaminated scrap is produced:

  1. Discrete radioactive sources may be mixed with scrap when they escape from regulatory control by being abandoned, lost, or stolen.
  2. Uncontrolled material contaminated with natural or man-made radionuclides from industrial processes may enter the scrap stream.
  3. Materials with very low levels of radioactivity that are below regulatory limits can pass through.

Unfortunately, in most cases it is impossible to know if the metals have been contaminated. Most scrap comes from the demolition of sites, some of which are nuclear facilities. In an attempt to deal with this problem, the EPA has developed a training CD for demolition contractors which describes how to identify and properly handle radiation sources at demolition sites.

Another case in which it is not possible to know if the metal has been contaminated is when the scrap metal is imported into the U.S. from other countries. Of course, there are certain regulations in place that help with detecting contaminated metals, but there is always a possibility of certain metals making it through.

Effects of Recycling Radioactively Contaminated Metals

It goes without saying that if contaminated scrap enters the system in the form of recycled metal, it will have devastating results. At every stage in the recycling process it has the potential to further contaminate other metals, the actual equipment and basically any other devices it comes in contact with.

Stage one

Workers handling scrap metal that has been contaminated with radiation are at risk of contamination themselves. Depending on the extent of the exposure, they can experience anything - from headaches, to mutations, to tumors.

Stage two

When scrap metal is recycled, it is sent to a smelter where it is melted down into molten metal. At such high temperatures, the radionuclides present in the metal can break free and spread like wildfire, thereby contaminating the smelter and all the other metal that would be recycled in the same smelter later on.

Stage three

Recycled metal that is already contaminated could spread through to industries in the form of equipment and heavy machinery. At these industries, all workers who come in contact with the contaminated equipment are at risk of radiation poisoning.

Stage four

Consumer products made out of recycled scrap can prove to be exceptionally dangerous, especially if they are in the form of electronic devices. The demographic that could potentially be exposed to this radiation could reach millions in the blink of an eye.

Stage five

Consumer products made from contaminated recycled metal for the sake of trade can potentially put the population of other countries at risk.

In light of this, it's apparent that though scrap recycling has numerous benefits, the process itself could be fatal to many - IF NOT DONE CAREFULLY. The EPA, along with federal agencies, is trying its best to put certain measures into place so that contaminated metal is not accidentally recycled.

At an individual level, you can always do the responsible thing and avoid selling your electronic and metal scrap to uncertified recycling centers.

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