Over four million people visit the Grand Canyon annually, which isn't surprising considering it's one of the most popular tourist attractions in America. What should come as a shock, however, is that hordes of people who've visited the natural wonder in recent decades may have unknowingly been exposed to radiation -- from vats of uranium that were reportedly surreptitiously stored in the Grand Canyon museum for years.
At least three 5-gallon buckets of highly radioactive uranium were stored in a popular visitor's area of the Grand Canyon museum for the past 20 years, according to a concerned park safety manager, per a report from AZ Central. The buckets -- one of which was apparently too full of uranium to be sealed -- were located up until very recently near a taxidermy exhibit that is regularly frequented by tour groups, including groups of kids.
So, how the hell did a bunch of radioactive ore end up in paint buckets in the museum? For some reason, the buckets full of the material were transferred from the basement of the Grand Canyon park headquarters to the museum at roughly the time it opened back in 2000, and they probably would have gone undetected if it weren't for the teenage son of a park employee who happened to show up to the museum with a geiger counter, only to discover it went berserk in the taxidermy collection room.
Following the discovery, workers moved the buckets to a different part of the museum, but they weren't moved offsite until June 2018 when park safety manager Elston "Swede" Stephenson was made aware of them. Workers equipped with only dishwashing gloves and an old mop handle reportedly removed them and dumped them at Orphan Mine, a closed uranium mine a couple miles away. However, for some reason, the empty buckets were then returned to the museum.
In the wake of the discovery and seemingly botched disposal, Stephenson filed a report in November with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA confirmed to AZ Central that an investigation is underway, but Stephenson believes that the radiation levels in the area were high enough for such an extended period that it warranted notifying the public of the possible hazard caused (which a subsequent report claimed was unnecessary). Instead, he believes officials have developed a "secrecy pact" to keep radiation exposure data from the public, per AZ Central, and so he decided to take matters into his own hands.
On February 4, Stephenson sent a "rogue" email to all Park Service employees warning that if they'd been in the Museum Collections Building between 2000 and 2018 they were exposed to uranium levels that exceeded the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's safe limits. According to his own calculations, kids who were there on tours in the taxidermy area could have been exposed to radiation above federal safety standards in just three seconds. Stephenson has reached out to a number of agencies, and has even assembled a detailed 45-page slideshow with photos of the buckets and their removal, to help prove his case.
The National Park Service has not commented on Stephenson's concerns directly, though a spokesperson did confirm with AZ Central that the Park Service is coordinating an investigation into the matter with OSHA and the Arizona Department of Health Services. So, maybe steer clear of the museum if you're headed to the Grand Canyon anytime soon?
h/t Quartz, AZ Central