Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Life and Mysterious Death of Karen Silkwood

The Contamination Incidents

Around this time, Silkwood experienced a series of contamination incidents herself, and with each one, the levels of radiation to which she was exposed became higher and more dangerous—and more suspicious.

On Tuesday, November 5, the union was in the middle of contract negotiations, when Karen clocked in and met with John Carver, a lab supervisor, who reprimanded her about undisclosed prescription drug use on the job. All employees were supposed to notify their supervisors of any medication they took. Silkwood had been taking Quaaludes, and coworkers had mentioned her seeming woozy at times.

Afterwards she had done some paperwork and signed into work in one of the labs when her shoe cover set off the alarms. She otherwise tested clean, and she swapped the cover and went to work. After a few hours cleaning and polishing rods in the glove boxes, she went to check out, and the alarms went off yet again. Even though she had self-checked several times when switching gloves and glove boxes and been clean, after the last round she heard the all-too-familiar clicking noise of the detector indicating she was hot. Parts of her hands and arms, particularly her right arm, measured hot—20 times the acceptable level. She was also tested with via nasal smear, which would indicate if she had potentially been internally contaminated by breathing in radioactive materials. This too tested high, but she was not given DPTA, a drug that helps rid the body of soluble plutonium in the body through urine or bodily waste.

She went through the normal decontamination routine, washing in a combination of harsh chemicals (bleach and Tide detergent) trying to scrub her skin of the radioactive contaminants. As Raske writes, "Kerr-McGee never discovered how Karen Silkwood was contaminated." Though her gloves were hot, there were no leaks in them.

The next day, she returned to work and, despite having done the unpleasant bleach shower, and despite having left clean, she tested hot yet again. Because the contamination was presumed to be embedded in her skin, though, she was allowed to go to a union meeting. After the meeting, she went back to get decontaminated for work and still tested 10 times hotter than allowable. After scrubbing her skin with a paste meant to slough off even more of the top layers of her skin, she got another reading. Again, she was hot, and her nasal smear was higher than the previous day. It was strange because she had barely spent any time in the lab.

On Thursday, she brought waste samples to work and clocked in, hotter still than her last two days. It was strange. It seemed clear that the contamination was happening outside of Kerr-McGee. Another bleach shower was the order, and then things got even more traumatic.

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