Capitol Radiation Roll Call article
Architect Deals With Fallout Site Posts Misleading Report on Capitol Radiation
By Lauren W. Whittington
Roll Call, April 16, 2001
As the communications officer for the Architect of the Capitol's office, Bruce Milhans has to spend a good chunk of his time on rumor patrol.
Just two weeks ago, for example, the Architect spokesman fielded a call from a reporter who wanted to know if it is true that the Capitol is sinking. (For the record, it's not.)
That's why it felt like par for the course that that very same week Milhans got press calls and a letter from a Member of Congress wanting to know if the Architect was doing anything about the high levels of gamma radiation in the Capitol.
Gamma radiation, the same stuff that gave the Incredible Hulk superhuman strength and an iridescent green hue?
"Once a rumor gets loose, you can't kill it," Milhans said. "There are the most outlandish rumors running around the federal work force, and Capitol Hill is probably ground zero for major rumors that will not die and that keep going around and coming back to get you."
As it turns out, the Member in question had been contacted by a constituent who read a study about radiation in the Capitol published on a "scientific" Web site. Junkscience.com reported last month that it had conducted a study and determined that gamma radiation levels in the Capitol and at the Library of Congress were "up to 65 times higher than Environmental Protection Agency safety standards."
The Web researchers measured gamma radiation dose levels at 10 sites, half of which were around the pedestals of statues in the Capitol. Because some types of stone have higher levels of radiation, some statues are prone to giving off more radiation. According to the study, the red marble pedestal on the statue of Roger Williams (located in the hallway between the Rotunda and the Senate chamber) was emitting radiation at a level of 30 microrem per hour, the highest of all those measured.
The pedestals of the Jennette Rankin, John McLoughlin, Florence Sabin and Abraham Lincoln statues were also tested.
AOC staffers didn't believe there was a radiation problem, but decided it was a better-safe-than-sorry situation. So they called in a team of officials from the U.S. public health service to measure radiation levels around the Capitol and LOC. "They determined that we have only normal background radiation," Milhans said.
"You get a lot more (radiation) when you're flying in an airplane because of the altitude,"he hypothesized, speculating that the junkscience.com researchers "must have been measuring something they brought with them." The Architect wasn't supposed to find anything wrong, according to Steven Milloy, the publisher of the 5-year-old Web site.
"I'm sure that the Architect measured the same levels of radiation that we did," Milloy said. "If you look at the study closely, I don't really think there's anything dangerous at the Capitol at all."
The amount of radiation measured was not out of the ordinary, Milloy said, given the abundance of marble and granite in the Capitol. The real point of the study, he explained, was to illustrate the "absurdity" of the EPA standards for Yucca Mountain, an area about 100 miles outside Las Vegas that is being considered as a repository for high-level nuclear waste.
Milloy contends that the radiation levels found at the Capitol and Library of Congress are much higher than the standard the EPA has set for Yucca Mountain, and yet pose no threat to humans.
"The ignorance of people astounds me," Milloy said. "I can't believe they actually wasted taxpayer money to (test the radiation levels). It cost me about $1,000 to have a firm go out there and do that, and I'm sure they probably spent much more than that."
Milhans said he didn't know how much the AOC paid the public health service for the hundreds of radiation samplings it conducted.
Milloy, who according to his Web site is also an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and a columnist for Foxnews.com, denied there was a political motive behind the study and said the data wasn't meant to be taken seriously, hence the name junk science (defined on the site as "faulty scientific data and analysis used to further a special agenda").
Last year the same site - which uses the motto "All the junk that's fit to debunk" - found the level of dioxin in a single serving of Ben & Jerry's ice cream is 2,000 times the level the EPA says is safe. The radiation study was made possible by a grant from Citizens for the Integrity of Science, according to junkscience.com.
"I'm just pointing out how ridiculous it is; I don't really care what they do," he said. However, Milloy was quick to point the finger at Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), a vocal opponent of opening Yucca Mountain to nuclear waste.
"In the case of Harry Reid, the bad science is the notion that low levels of radiation are dangerous and the agenda is to keep Yucca Mountain from opening up," Milloy said. "I just think the standards are absurdly low and Senator Reid is being ridiculous."
A Reid aide said that despite Milloy's claims, it was clear that the Web site was only seeking to further a political agenda.
"There's a big difference between the low levels of radiation in the Capitol and putting 70,000 tons of deadly radioactive waste in Yucca Mountain, which is clearly dangerous to Nevadans," said Reid spokesman Mark Schuermann. "Obviously this is part of the public relations war from the nuclear power industry to try and expedite this deadly stuff to Nevada."
Milhans, though, said he isn't focused on one side of the issue or the other, and is simply trying to keep scientific falsehoods from spreading. After receiving the findings, the Architect notified the Member, who Milhans declined to identify, that there was indeed no radiation problem within the Capitol and also reported the findings to the House Administration Committee, the Senate Rules and Administration Committee and the Speaker's office. No sense in not keeping your bases covered.
"If it comes to me in the form of a media inquiry, there's a pretty good chance other people are talking about it out there," Milhans said.
After all, there are a lot of other things around the Capitol that Milhans has to tend to.
"We most certainly cannot spend all our time knocking down silly rumors about things on Capitol Hill."