Radiation on O’Hare flights deemed no threat

By Julie Johnsson
Posted March 17 at 3:53 p.m.

Federal officials found traces of radiation on United and American airlines jets that arrived at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport from Tokyo Wednesday, but later determined that the planes’ cargo and passengers were not at risk.

As concerns mount about the radiation spewing into the atmosphere from Japan’s crippled nuclear reactors, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it had begun monitoring airline and maritime traffic for radiation contamination “out of an abundance of caution.”

Mayor Richard Daley acknowledged Thursday that inbound flights from Tokyo had set off radiation detectors at O’Hare, but he offered no details and said federal officials will be handling the situation.

“Of course the protection of the person coming off the plane is very important in regards to any radiation, especially within their families and anything else,” Daley said at a news conference to discuss his trip to China this week.

Customs officials detected trace elements of radiation on cargo containers on two flights that landed at O’Hare from Tokyo’s Narita International Airport, Wednesday, and an additional flight operated by American Airlines into Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport.

Officials quickly determined that the packages were safe, sources said. On the two American flights, the isotope discovered was consistent with that emitted by medical devices, and the jets were quickly returned to service, said Tim Smith, spokesman for the Dallas-based carrier.

“We’ve said all along that we’re monitoring every possible aspect of the Japan operation,” Smith added.

The radiation plume forming over the Pacific from Japan’s nuclear crisis is a growing concern for U.S. carriers, who want to avoid contaminating aircraft surfaces and exposing passengers and employees to harmful radioactive isotopes.

For the first time in recent memory, maps used to guide aircraft around hazards like storms and active volcanoes now carry a red radioactive sign to denote a no-fly zone over the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors. Flight dispatchers Thursday were also given the coordinates of an area over the Pacific where airborne concentrations are of greatest concern, sources told the Tribune

Customs officials routinely screen overseas flights and passengers for radioactive materials that pose security risks, and scanned more than half a million flights for nuclear materials in 2010, said an airline official who had been briefed on the initiative.

Frontline personnel are equipped with personal radiation detectors that can sniff out radiological materials, while all airports have more sensitive devices that can determine both the presence and type of radiation encountered, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a news release.

The presence of radiation isn’t unusual on aircraft and may be linked to a variety of sources, including travel at high altitudes. Still, federal officials provided few details about why they were screening air traffic or the hazards they were trying to detect.

“No aircraft entering the United States (Wednesday) tested positive for radiation at harmful levels,” the department said in a prepared statement.

The airline source briefed on the initiative said that the highest reading on any flight from Japan, Wednesday, was roughly equivalent to one hour of commercial flight. The average reading was several hundred times less than the radiation in a single chest x-ray, he said.

A spokeswoman for Chicago-based United Airlines declined comment and directed a reporter to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol for information.

The radiation alert in Chicago and Dallas was first reported by the New York Post.

Tribune reporters John Byrne and Liam Ford contributed.

Read more about the topics in this post: , , ,


  1. alphab March 17 at 10:16 a.m.

    Shame on the Tribune for 1) trying to feed paranoia, 2) running any story that came from the NY Post and 3) running a story this devoid of facts.

  2. Sam Spaden March 17 at 10:23 a.m.

    What else would one expect from a Republican rag?

  3. john March 17 at 10:30 a.m.

    Why is everything republican and democrat. what is wrong with you spaden

  4. LON March 17 at 10:37 a.m.

    Love the “Internet Tough Guys” hiding behind their keyboards who throw political comments anywhere they can; even when it’s not remotely connected with a news article. Pathetic.

  5. Al Kahol March 17 at 10:39 a.m.

    That is odd. I wonder what would have caused that?

  6. Dan March 17 at 11:28 a.m.

    Lon: That’s exactly what happened when the Federalist Papers were published. People hid behind a pseudonym (in this case the internet, but the same) and those publications were effective. Attack the argument, not the author. Oh, go back to community college and get an associates. It’s clear you don’t have a bachelors in anything except idiocy.

  7. Steve March 17 at 11:48 a.m.

    “Shame on the Tribune for 1) trying to feed paranoia, 2) running any story that came from the NY Post and 3) running a story this devoid of facts.”


  8. Jim March 17 at 11:54 a.m.

    Lon’s worries are justified, Dan. The Federalist Papers set out a rational argument in favor of the new Constitution and invited a rational response. Internet anonymity is usually used to hurl groundless ad hominems, like yours about his education background. Please do not equate playground name calling with Messrs. Hamilton and Madison’s constitutional arguments. In case you were going to invite me, I might like going to one of our fine community colleges and getting a new degree in something interesting to put along with all of the other ones I have.

  9. FireBob March 17 at 12:27 pm

    Oh, I don’t know how ‘devoid of facts’ it is, Daley admits to radiation detector activation, says it’s rightly been passed to the feds and that’s that. All news outlets play to paranoia, sensationalism sells and big. The issue between the lines seems to be that Japan isn’t being entirely honest about what’s happening there and that the problem may well be worse than anyone is being told, including the WH.

  10. dpma March 17 at 1:28 pm

    “Shame on the Tribune for 1) trying to feed paranoia, 2) running any story that came from the NY Post and 3) running a story this devoid of facts.”


  11. mario March 17 at 2:14 pm

    TeaParty is over Tribune! Join the rest of the world!

  12. paul March 17 at 2:56 pm

    When I first read this article this morning, I agreed with “alphab.” This article was about three lines long. Now, however, it’s been fleshed out & I find nothing objectionable about it.

    Which raises an interesting problem: in an era of constantly-updated news stories, comments are static, often rendering them incommensurable with the item to which they are attached. “alphab”’s comment was left on an article that, for all intents and purposes, was not this one.

    I don’t know how to solve this. Is it really a problem? A little link to a cached version of the article–as it appeared when the comment was left– a la Wikipedia?

  13. crg March 17 at 3:11 pm

    Sooo, these radiation detectors only go off on very low, harmless doses? Interesting..Was this “illegal” radiation that gets detected versus “legal” radiation that humans are exposed to every day?

  14. Jeffrey Blankenship March 17 at 3:53 pm

    Remember that “dirty bomb” we’re supposed to be so afraid of? It looks like we should be more worried about how unprepared our friends in the nuclear and oil industries are to mitigate a disaster.

    It boggles my mind that proper equipment (generators, pumps) wasn’t airlifted in and hooked up while there was still time to prevent explosions, fires, and meltdowns. Disaster contingency plans exist, did they wash out to sea in the tsunami? No, it can only be because Tokyo Electric Power Company was in denial, and they’re still showing only the feeblest signs of consciousness. Now the human cost and complexities are greatly multiplied.

    It is another sad reminder that some things are just a bit more than humanity is capable of pulling off, and some stakes are just too high no matter how much fun we’re having while gambling.

  15. Barbyr March 17 at 5:03 pm

    This situation in Japan is being handled worse (if that’s possible) than Bush’s handling of Katrina. Unfortunately, the literal fallout from this event will be circling the globe FOR YEARS. The incidence of cancer worldwide will take a heinous spike that will be traced back to the moment these idiots started telling us everything’s ok.

    This is going to be the worst accident this world has ever seen.

    A month from now, Tokyo will be a ghost town, and the northern territory of Japan will be uninhabitable for hundreds if not thousands of years. Nice going, GE. Your Mark I reactors are a huge hit!

  16. alphab March 17 at 6:36 pm

    totally true, Paul. my comment was on the craptastic earlier version of this while this one is only moderately lame, up to the Trib’s usual mediocre standard. what would be useful for people is to understand that *last week* we weren’t checking for low levels of radiation in cargo, and this week we are. last week, the counters would’ve gone off a little over this and that and there would have been no danger. i think beginning to test is a good move, but they should be abundantly clear about what the baseline is. for the record, lots of things that hurt no one every day give off low, even high levels of radiation, like your tv and your computer and the sun. i’m not saying there’s no cause for worry, cuz there is. just that the Trib, if they were doing their job, would be trying to provide valuable, helpful information for people who are concerned.

  17. ericst March 17 at 7:34 pm

    “A spokeswoman for Chicago-based United Airlines declined comment and directed a reporter to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol for information.”

    If you are employed as a spokesperson and you decline to comment, are you really a spokesperson any more?

  18. 44lksd March 17 at 8:04 pm

    “Shame on the Tribune for 1) trying to feed paranoia, 2) running any story that came from the NY Post and 3) running a story this devoid of facts.”