Catching Rays with Radiation Man 

Walter Wagner hopes to save the world from killer uranium tiles.

Walter Wagner unzipped the black carrying case holding his Geiger counter and headed toward the bushes. For the past half hour, the former radiation safety officer had scoured the UCBerkeley campus on the hunt for ceramic tiles. He'd nosed his way into a few unlocked lecture halls and inspected half a dozen bathroom floors, all to no avail. According to Wagner, many tiles we pass by every day -- including the ones in our own showers -- are still coated in a uranium-based glaze that beams with radiation. Depending on what Wagner's counter tells him, some tiles, he believes, emit enough radiation to cause cancer.

Wagner wedged his thin frame through the tight clump of branches and leaves, and stood face to face with a mosaic located on the east side of Cal's Old Art Gallery building. He ran the device in a slow rainbow arc above his head. The machine beeped once, twice -- and then pitched into a solid tone.

"We've got it!" he yelled, still up to his armpits in shrubs. "It's the orange ones!"

Smiling at the sound of success, Wagner quickly calculated that the glaze on the small tiles contained about 7 to 10 percent uranium. That meant anyone within one hundred feet of the tiles would absorb invisible beta rays and, potentially, the more hazardous gamma rays. By Wagner's estimates, if a student stood directly in front of the mosaic for twenty hours a day, two hundred days a year, there'd be a less than 1 in 1,000 chance -- but a chance nonetheless -- he'd walk away with some form of cancer.

On that note, Wagner said he didn't want to stand there any longer, and made his way back to the pavement. He lopes along in quick strides, with the goofy, disheveled air of an absent-minded professor. He was wearing a wrinkled long-sleeved shirt and a necktie decorated with children's handprints that read, "I love my daddy."

"If those tiles were in my house," he said, laughing, "I'd rip them out today."

Despite his comical demeanor, Walter Wagner and his Geiger are taken very seriously in some circles. Earlier this year, the 53-year-old embarked on a campaign to rid the world of the tiles he considers the greatest unknown health risk inside your home since lead-based paint. With the help of his scientific credentials -- including a biology degree and graduate physics coursework at Cal -- and his penchant for generating media coverage, he's already enjoyed limited success. In May, he phoned Fox affiliate KTVU to alert its TV news crew of his most recent discovery: hot tiles at San Francisco's Francis Scott Key Elementary School. After the report aired, worried parents flooded the principal's office with calls and district superintendent Arlene Ackerman ordered the area roped off. "We don't want to take any chances," said Lorna Ho, Ackerman's assistant.

A bureaucratic domino effect followed, and today, the California Department of Health Services is conducting a study at Francis Scott Key, as well as three other schools flagged by Wagner. If he had his way, the government's safety officers would begin a massive tile check tomorrow. "I don't think they should stop in the Bay Area," he added. "I think they should check out the tiles across the state, then the country. I can't do it myself. I'm only one man."

Wagner's calls for action are heard beyond the schoolhouse. For fun, he'll cruise neighborhoods in his Volkswagen sedan, spot decorative tiles on a home front, park the car -- usually an adventure that involves bouncing up on a curb -- take a quick reading, knock on the front door, and essentially tell the homeowner that the tiles in his walkway are shooting radiation. Wagner punctuates most of the things he says with a wolfy laugh, a near-hyperventilation sound that comes from his nose, so it's easy to see why some people are taken aback by his doorway presentations.

"Some people just close the door on me," he admitted, adding a few nasal huffs. "They don't want to hear it. They'd rather not know, I suppose. But some people say, 'Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!' You never know, really, how people will respond. It can be shocking news to take in."

Within the small world of health radiation experts, though, Wagner's tile theory sniffs of hogwash, and many of his peers are shooting the bad vibes his way. When news of Wagner's media-baiting made the rounds, a few radiation experts stepped up to dismantle his findings and called on him to end the fearmongering. As Wagner surveyed the Berkeley campus in the name of public health, he was excited about an upcoming trip to San Diego where he'd finally get a chance to "educate" many of his more skeptical colleagues, as he put it. His scheduled attendance and poster presentation at the 48th annual Health Physicists Society meeting was already causing a stir. "He better come prepared," warned Paul Frame, a radiation expert and co-author of Living With Radiation: The First Hundred Years. "Because there's gonna be a bunch of people ready to jump him. I don't envy him."

The San Diego trip held yet another potential coup for Wagner, one that would take his knock 'n' shock technique to new heights. He'd recently learned about a group of homes in the city's aging North Park district that were allegedly floored with a batch of hot tiles.

In one house, a two-year-old boy named Toby had died from a rare muscular cancer usually found in adults. According to Wagner's e-mail tipster, who once lived next door to the family, Toby's parents had allowed him to crawl across the tiles, unaware of the direct radiation exposure. Even though the boy had died ten years ago and his parents had moved away, his sudden illness was never explained. Since Wagner hadn't phoned ahead, nor would he, he was already preparing how to deliver the news. He was clearly aroused by his presumed connection between the tiles and Toby's illness and what that meant for his own place in history.

"This will be the first time in science," Wagner said, his voice rising with excitement, "where there will be a direct cause and effect between environmental radiation exposure and a cancer. Or, for that matter, a death."


Wagner arrived at the San Diego conference wearing a brand-new cowboy hat. He'd been in his Salinas hometown a few days earlier, taking in the "row-day-oh" as he gamely pronounces it, and made the impulse buy. "Looks good, doesn't?" he asked.

While there, he stopped by his old middle school, where he found more tiles that made his Geiger go beep. The principal dismissed his concerns, so Wagner called the local paper. "Then," Wagner sniffed, "he decided to do something."

At the conference, Wagner tacked the resulting newspaper article on the bulletin board in his booth, along with a chunk of a green shower tile he'd pulled off an abandoned building in downtown Oakland. His booth up and running now, he turned on his Geiger and waited for an audience.

One thing Wagner and his colleagues can agree upon is that everything in the world, arguably, is radioactive. It's how much radioactivity, and what kind, that stirs up debates that can end up with a calculator thrown to the floor. Ever since physicists learned that radioactivity was bad for the human body earlier last century, researchers have been trying to establish human exposure limits. The forms of radioactivity Wagner is concerned about include deadly gamma rays, which can penetrate deep into the body and damage cells and DNA, and the weaker, more common beta rays, stray electrons that rarely penetrate far beyond the skin's outer layers. Betas are so weak and omnipresent, you'll catch some watching television tonight. The main danger comes when someone ingests a beta source from construction dust or something similar.

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