Soap and water can keep kids clean, but keeping children protected from radiation may require more than just a soapy concoction.
A Hawaii company is spraying its light-blue decontamination gel onto surfaces of a small kindergarten in Fukushima, Japan, where children currently stay inside all day to avoid dangerous nuclear pollution.
If this weekend’s decontamination of Asahimachi Baptist Church and School is successful and more effective than the traditional soap and water scrub downs, Honolulu-based CBI Polymers hopes to expand use of their product, called DeconGel, to many other hot spots affected by radiation leaked from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant. The plant was severely damaged after the March 11 tsunami and earthquakes.
Workers for the company were at the school beginning Friday to spray DeconGel onto concrete and tile surfaces, where they’re accompanied by a researcher who will measure the product’s success.
As the spray hardens, it absorbs radiation particles, and then the coat can be peeled from surfaces and rolled into a carpet-like cylinder for safe disposal. Unlike water, the gel encapsulates harmful chemicals so it’s safe to touch, the company said.
“The kids have been kept from playing outside. Their parents’ view is, ‘Why would we take the risk and have the additional exposure of having them play in the playground?’” asked Shaun McCabe, president of Asia-Pacific systems for CBI Polymers, during a phone interview from Japan. The company donated $250,000 for the school cleanup, including gel and labor costs.
After the DeconGel is removed and contaminated playground dirt replaced, the school’s 30 children could escape their indoor confines, where radiation levels are far lower, McCabe said. The school is located in Fukushima City, about 31 miles away from the nuclear reactors.
In small tests at the school last month, the gel eliminated about 90 percent of radionuclides, said Cham Dallas, a University of Georgia public health professor measuring how well the product works at the Fukushima school this weekend.
“If it works in one school, it could be applied in many larger areas,” he said.
Existing methods for reducing radiation levels generally involve washing walls and concrete with soap and water, which can lead to radioactive material flowing into public water systems, he said.
Even after the water process was tried at the school, his tests still found levels around 5,000 counts per minute in the school’s entryway, which is below the Japanese government’s action standard but still threatening over time. Areas untainted by radiation would have about 5 or 10 counts per minute.
"Soap and water does remove radionuclides, but there’s a lot that’s left behind," he said. "You flush it down the drain and forget about it, but it’s not a very wise way of disposing radionuclides."
Decontamination of the Fukushima area will likely take about 20 years, and local governments need to decide what methods they’ll use, Dallas said.
Water is by far Japan’s most common radiation cleaning technique. Several other peelable decontamination products also are available, but none has been widely used.
“The world is going to find out that DeconGel is the killer app of decontamination products. We’re trying to get it used in as wide of an application as we can,” said CBI Polymers CEO Galen Ho in Honolulu, noting he expects an order next week from Japan Self-Defense Forces to clean contaminated vehicles, bulldozers and tow trucks.
DeconGel costs $151 per gallon retail, which is a similar price as bottom paint for the hull of a commercial boat, he said. In comparison, high-quality oil-based paints cost about $80 per gallon.
Asahimachi Baptist Church and School was chosen for decontamination because it already has a connection to Hawaii, McCabe said. Some of the school’s students and teachers traveled to the islands in the chaotic weeks after March 11.