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Uncovering the Oil Industry’s Radioactive Secret (Part 4): Personal Tragedy

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While today the oil and gas industry does not talk openly about the risks radioactivity poses to their workers, they once did. “The presence of natural radioactivity in oil and gas fields has been recognised worldwide,” states a 1987 document from the UK Offshore Operators Association, a leading trade association for the UK’s oil and gas industry.

Shell is aware of the issue too. The company’s own documents reveal that the oil and gas giant has known for 70 years that various exposures from oil and gas work, including exposure to radioactive materials, can lead to cancer.

But while Shell scientists may be schooled on the matter, workers like Keith MacDonald, labouring in the company’s gritty and far-flung oil and gas fields, appear to be left to fend for themselves. And the company does not seem willing to fill in the blanks.

In 2020, Justin Nobel wrote an article detailing what happened that fateful day, the personal tragedy that ensued, and the steps MacDonald had taken, without success, to hold those responsible accountable. As Nobel’s article is longer than most would read in one sitting, we are republishing it in sections in a four-part series.  This article is the fourth and final part. You can read Part 1 HERE and Nobel’s full article HERE.

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By Justin Nobel, republished from DeSmog

Personal tragedy

MacDonald was furious with his superiors at Shell who had failed to inform him of the radioactivity risks at Theyyem-107. He had also been seeded with a horrible dread – that the high dose of radiation he received had forever mutated his body.

On the afternoon of 1 August 2000, he filed a report detailing his visit to Thayyem-107. “Specific methods for protection of personnel and the environment…were not applied,” it stated. He tried to get colleagues to listen to his concerns but says he was treated like an outcast. A 7 November 2000 letter from Al Furat Petroleum Company to Gray Mackenzie, the UK-based oil service company that initially hired MacDonald for the Syria job, described him as a “disruptive influence.” The letter continued, “I would therefore advise you … to terminate this individual immediately.”

Image: A letter from AFPC to Gray Mackenzie suggesting the company terminate MacDonald’s contract.

But AFPC’s own investigation appeared to vindicate MacDonald. The underlying cause of the incident, their report stated, included the failure to follow working rules regarding NORM, a failure of communication, poor supervision, and a perceived pressure to finish the job in a hasty manner and ignore safety rules. On a scale of one to five, where one was slight injury and five was death, the report labelled the incident a three — “Major Injury”. Exposure, on a scale of A to E, was D — “High”. The report was signed by Robin Gardiner, an AFPC maintenance chief, and Brian Welch, a top Shell inspector.

Even this admission of error did not translate to compensation MacDonald thought he deserved. Lawyers and the judicial system had failed him. He grew despondent and had trouble sleeping. In nightmares, cancer blossomed across his body. In 2005, while working in Kula Lumpur, Malaysia, MacDonald collapsed on the side of a busy city street. At a hospital, he was fitted with a pacemaker. “There was nothing wrong physically,” he says – just crushing stress.

Then there was a high point. MacDonald had met his first wife, Sara, while working in the Philippines and together they set up a home in the UK and had a son, Alastair. But the marriage ended in the 1990s, largely because of his work’s constant travel, says MacDonald. He wondered if he would ever have a stable family life.

Then, in 2006, while working for Chevron in Thailand, MacDonald met Kay. They married and moved to land owned by her parents in the countryside north of Bangkok. With his oilfield money, MacDonald built a veritable mansion: a five-bedroom house for his wife and her extended family.

“We had 40 acres of land and grew rice and corn, and we had chickens and pigs,” says MacDonald. A son, Calum, was born in 2007. In 2009, Scott was born. “I was in heaven,” says MacDonald. But just as swiftly as he had built a new world for himself, it crumbled.

In December 2010, Scott became sick. The diagnosis was Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia. For three years he was in and out of Bangkok General Hospital receiving treatments. MacDonald had a good job in Indonesia, working as a construction superintendent for Saudi Aramco on a large project in the Straits of Malacca. He was making $24,000 a month and virtually all of it went to hospital bills. “I spent my life savings on medical treatment for Scott,” he says.

A photo from October 2013 shows father and son seated together in Pattay, a resort city on the Gulf of Thailand. MacDonald has a bandage on his right arm from an operation he had just received for a subdermal tumour. Scott is in a grey T-shirt, leaning on his father’s shoulder and smiling. He appears to be missing a tooth. They are both bald.

“That was the last time I saw Scott alive,” says MacDonald. He had just been released and doctors said there was a 94 per cent chance he would survive. But Scott relapsed, and on 29 November 2013, he died, at the age of four and a half. “That knocked the guts out of me,” says MacDonald.

Then his own health took a turn. More cancerous skin lesions appeared and he returned to the UK for treatment. While physicians tended to blame his skin cancers on the sun, MacDonald remained convinced it was from his radioactivity exposure at Thayyem-107. “Whilst ultraviolet light remains probably the biggest factor in developing skin cancers,” wrote Sharon Blackford, a UK dermatologist who assessed his case in 2018, “the BETA particle exposure certainly could be contributory.”

But by that point, MacDonald had fallen down an even more shocking rabbit hole of research. He had discovered childhood leukaemia shared a potential link with a father receiving a high dose of radiation.

famous study published in 1990 in BMJ — formerly the British Medical Journal — examined a childhood leukaemia cluster in northwest England near Sellafield, a sprawling nuclear power facility. Many suspected links were examined, such as consumption of local fish and shellfish, nearness of homes to the facility, and whether or not mothers had been exposed to various viruses during pregnancy or received pre-natal abdominal x-rays. The link of statistical significance, researchers found, lay in the occupation of the sick children’s fathers, many of whom worked at the nuclear facility and had received elevated radioactivity exposures in the months leading up to their wives’ conception. “This result,” the authors concluded, “suggests an effect of ionising radiation on fathers that may be leukemogenic in their offspring.”

The paper remains controversial. But when DeSmog put the question of whether MacDonald’s exposure in Syria could have led to his wife, eight and a half years later, giving birth to a son who would die from leukaemia, Marco Kaltofen, the US nuclear forensics expert, said the question “was not crazy.” While a mutated sperm would not live long, says Kaltofen, in MacDonald’s case, radioactive elements accidentally ingested and inhaled would still be inside of him, blasting off harmful radiation. In fact, Radium-226, the primary isotope of concern on pipes such as the one MacDonald examined has a half-life of 1,600 years.

Still, to firmly link Scott’s death to MacDonald’s cancer, a person with a combined expertise that includes a medical physician degree and a PhD in toxicology would have to examine the case, says Kaltofen. Unfortunately, they are few and far between. An even greater impediment to the truth might be a longstanding bias among this rarefied group of experts. “There is a real resistance in the health physics community to teratogenic radiation effects, meaning that exposure to an individual can affect the next generation,” says Kaltofen.”

Shell, however, is aware of the linkage. “Exposure to ionising radiation, even at low doses, can cause damage to the nuclear (genetic) material in cells that can result in the development of radiation-induced cancer many years later (somatic effects), heritable disease in future generations and some developmental effects under certain conditions,” states the 2016 International Association of Oil & Gas Producers paper on oilfield radioactivity, co-authored by retired Shell radiation expert Gert Jonkers.

More cases?

MacDonald remains convinced the negligent exposure he received while working for Shell in the oilfields of Syria led to the death of his son from leukaemia and his own skin cancers, whatever the courts and toxicologists say. What worries him most is that he is not alone; that he is a member of a vast hidden army of oil and gas workers who have been contaminated in oilfields the world over. And many of them may have received high exposures regularly and over a much longer time span.

Frances Leader, a Corfe Mullen resident who lost her husband Tony, a former North Sea oilman, to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2013 remains convinced radioactivity exposure during his time on rigs in the 1970s and early 1980s was the cause. The contamination, she believes, came from the drilling fluids and produced water that spilt all over men like Tony every time pipping was pulled up on deck. Additional exposure, she suspects, came from sludge in tanks located in the base of the rig that she says Tony regularly had to clean. “They wore no breathing apparatus, no protection, no dosimeter, and there was never ever any mention of radioactivity—none,” says Leader.

How many UK oil and gas workers share a similar fate is unknown because no one has ever tried to search for and tally the cases. How many workers around the world have been harmed by radioactivity is an even greater mystery.

“The Syrians were basically deemed disposable,” concludes MacDonald, recalling his time with Shell in the Middle East. “They were green as grass and hadn’t been told anything. Guys were allowed to go into contaminated areas without any monitoring, and operators took no precautions.”

MacDonald realises that not everyone has the documents and evidence that he has been able to obtain over the years. And not everyone feels confronting one of the most powerful industries on earth is their only remaining option. “The industry is terrified to expose any of this knowledge because there are too many people with billions and billions of dollars invested,” he says. “At the end of the day I want to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is not an isolated incident, and there are other people being exposed.”

“No one give’s a shit, but I give a shit,” he adds. “This is all preventable, and if my coming out can save one life, then it was all worth it.”

About the Author

Justin Nobel writes on issues of science and the environment for Rolling Stone, DeSmog and various other publications. During the years 2017 to 2020, Nobel was reporting on oil and gas development across the US whilst also researching and authoring a book on oil and gas radioactivity. Our article above is extracted from a 2020 article written by Nobel and published by DeSmog titled ‘The Syrian Job: Uncovering the Oil Industry’s Radioactive Secret’.

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