Walter Wagner unzipped the black carrying case holding his Geiger counter and headed toward the bushes. For the past half hour, the former radiation safety officer had scoured the UCBerkeley campus on the hunt for ceramic tiles. He’d nosed his way into a few unlocked lecture halls and inspected half a dozen bathroom floors, all to no avail. According to Wagner, many tiles we pass by every day — including the ones in our own showers — are still coated in a uranium-based glaze that beams with radiation. Depending on what Wagner’s counter tells him, some tiles, he believes, emit enough radiation to cause cancer.
Wagner wedged his thin frame through the tight clump of branches and leaves, and stood face to face with a mosaic located on the east side of Cal’s Old Art Gallery building. He ran the device in a slow rainbow arc above his head. The machine beeped once, twice — and then pitched into a solid tone.
“We’ve got it!” he yelled, still up to his armpits in shrubs. “It’s the orange ones!”
Smiling at the sound of success, Wagner quickly calculated that the glaze on the small tiles contained about 7 to 10 percent uranium. That meant anyone within one hundred feet of the tiles would absorb invisible beta rays and, potentially, the more hazardous gamma rays. By Wagner’s estimates, if a student stood directly in front of the mosaic for twenty hours a day, two hundred days a year, there’d be a less than 1 in 1,000 chance — but a chance nonetheless — he’d walk away with some form of cancer.
On that note, Wagner said he didn’t want to stand there any longer, and made his way back to the pavement. He lopes along in quick strides, with the goofy, disheveled air of an absent-minded professor. He was wearing a wrinkled long-sleeved shirt and a necktie decorated with children’s handprints that read, “I love my daddy.”
“If those tiles were in my house,” he said, laughing, “I’d rip them out today.”
Despite his comical demeanor, Walter Wagner and his Geiger are taken very seriously in some circles. Earlier this year, the 53-year-old embarked on a campaign to rid the world of the tiles he considers the greatest unknown health risk inside your home since lead-based paint. With the help of his scientific credentials — including a biology degree and graduate physics coursework at Cal — and his penchant for generating media coverage, he’s already enjoyed limited success. In May, he phoned Fox affiliate KTVU to alert its TV news crew of his most recent discovery: hot tiles at San Francisco’s Francis Scott Key Elementary School. After the report aired, worried parents flooded the principal’s office with calls and district superintendent Arlene Ackerman ordered the area roped off. “We don’t want to take any chances,” said Lorna Ho, Ackerman’s assistant.
A bureaucratic domino effect followed, and today, the California Department of Health Services is conducting a study at Francis Scott Key, as well as three other schools flagged by Wagner. If he had his way, the government’s safety officers would begin a massive tile check tomorrow. “I don’t think they should stop in the Bay Area,” he added. “I think they should check out the tiles across the state, then the country. I can’t do it myself. I’m only one man.”
Wagner’s calls for action are heard beyond the schoolhouse. For fun, he’ll cruise neighborhoods in his Volkswagen sedan, spot decorative tiles on a home front, park the car — usually an adventure that involves bouncing up on a curb — take a quick reading, knock on the front door, and essentially tell the homeowner that the tiles in his walkway are shooting radiation. Wagner punctuates most of the things he says with a wolfy laugh, a near-hyperventilation sound that comes from his nose, so it’s easy to see why some people are taken aback by his doorway presentations.
“Some people just close the door on me,” he admitted, adding a few nasal huffs. “They don’t want to hear it. They’d rather not know, I suppose. But some people say, ‘Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!’ You never know, really, how people will respond. It can be shocking news to take in.”
Within the small world of health radiation experts, though, Wagner’s tile theory sniffs of hogwash, and many of his peers are shooting the bad vibes his way. When news of Wagner’s media-baiting made the rounds, a few radiation experts stepped up to dismantle his findings and called on him to end the fearmongering. As Wagner surveyed the Berkeley campus in the name of public health, he was excited about an upcoming trip to San Diego where he’d finally get a chance to “educate” many of his more skeptical colleagues, as he put it. His scheduled attendance and poster presentation at the 48th annual Health Physicists Society meeting was already causing a stir. “He better come prepared,” warned Paul Frame, a radiation expert and co-author of Living With Radiation: The First Hundred Years. “Because there’s gonna be a bunch of people ready to jump him. I don’t envy him.”
The San Diego trip held yet another potential coup for Wagner, one that would take his knock ‘n’ shock technique to new heights. He’d recently learned about a group of homes in the city’s aging North Park district that were allegedly floored with a batch of hot tiles.
In one house, a two-year-old boy named Toby had died from a rare muscular cancer usually found in adults. According to Wagner’s e-mail tipster, who once lived next door to the family, Toby’s parents had allowed him to crawl across the tiles, unaware of the direct radiation exposure. Even though the boy had died ten years ago and his parents had moved away, his sudden illness was never explained. Since Wagner hadn’t phoned ahead, nor would he, he was already preparing how to deliver the news. He was clearly aroused by his presumed connection between the tiles and Toby’s illness and what that meant for his own place in history.
“This will be the first time in science,” Wagner said, his voice rising with excitement, “where there will be a direct cause and effect between environmental radiation exposure and a cancer. Or, for that matter, a death.”
Wagner arrived at the San Diego conference wearing a brand-new cowboy hat. He’d been in his Salinas hometown a few days earlier, taking in the “row-day-oh” as he gamely pronounces it, and made the impulse buy. “Looks good, doesn’t?” he asked.
While there, he stopped by his old middle school, where he found more tiles that made his Geiger go beep. The principal dismissed his concerns, so Wagner called the local paper. “Then,” Wagner sniffed, “he decided to do something.”
At the conference, Wagner tacked the resulting newspaper article on the bulletin board in his booth, along with a chunk of a green shower tile he’d pulled off an abandoned building in downtown Oakland. His booth up and running now, he turned on his Geiger and waited for an audience.
One thing Wagner and his colleagues can agree upon is that everything in the world, arguably, is radioactive. It’s how much radioactivity, and what kind, that stirs up debates that can end up with a calculator thrown to the floor. Ever since physicists learned that radioactivity was bad for the human body earlier last century, researchers have been trying to establish human exposure limits. The forms of radioactivity Wagner is concerned about include deadly gamma rays, which can penetrate deep into the body and damage cells and DNA, and the weaker, more common beta rays, stray electrons that rarely penetrate far beyond the skin’s outer layers. Betas are so weak and omnipresent, you’ll catch some watching television tonight. The main danger comes when someone ingests a beta source from construction dust or something similar.
On ceramic tiles, the beta rays come from uranium in the glaze, and gammas come from uranium decay products that are themselves radioactive. Before World War II, uranium was mined primarily by the ceramics and photo industries, which were then unaware of the element’s harmful effects. For the ceramics barons, uranium was magical: It accentuated brilliant pigmentation for oranges and reds and yellows, and offered a hard, glass-like finish. Radium, a waste product from the uranium ore, was put to use in consumer products such as glow-in-the-dark clocks and jukeboxes.
Without much forethought, uranium was shipped into an estimated ten million American homes. Most famously, orange Fiestaware plates and bowls were coated in the tainted glaze, adding a secret ingredient to mom’s apple pie. When government physicists sought out uranium for the Manhattan Project, the mines were closed to the private sector. And after the devastation inflicted in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, clear connections were made: What was on those plates and bowls and inside those nightstand clocks couldn’t be good for humans.
For all of the attention given to Fiestaware, little mind was paid to other ceramic products. Most of the tiles Wagner has located were produced pre-World War II, but not all. He even found a few hot ceramic fountains inside Cal’s recently renovated Sproul Administration Building. “You’d have to stick your head in there for a quite a while,” he said, “but that’s about 15 percent uranium.”
After the government seized the uranium mines, ceramic companies continued purchasing their waste products. This diluted uranium barely registered as radioactive, so the government didn’t ban its use. Even today, no hard and fast regulations prevent uranium-based ceramic glazes. The general understanding is, the amount of radiation coming off most tiles is so minute, why bother?
Radiation exposure is measured in rads — one rad being defined as the absorption of one hundred ergs of energy per gram of absorbing material — human tissue in this case. A dental X-ray, for instance, will give you about ten millirads to the face in one zap. From his measurements at Francis Scott Key, Wagner calculated that a kid who sat on the school’s tiled bench a total of one hour a day (thirty minutes before classes, fifteen during lunch, and fifteen waiting for a ride home) over the course of two hundred school days would absorb four thousand millirads (four rads) annually to various portions of the body. Most experts say anything above five rads from one source is too much.
Wagner’s estimates are considered high, and leave a lot to chance. That’s why he has so many debunkers. As Wagner manned his booth beneath a sign that read “URANIUM GLAZED TILES TODAY!!!,” a few rows behind him another physicist had set up shop solely to counter Wagner’s theory.
Robert Gregger, supervising health physicist for the state Health Department, was presenting his office’s own experiments at Francis Scott Key. For a man of science, he was unusually tanned and vibrant, unlike many of his lab-pallid colleagues. He seemed to relish the role as Wagner’s debunker, but in a sympathetic sort of way; he was taking on a nutty professor, and if someone had to do it, it might as well be him. Gregger, wearing an unbuttoned floral-print shirt, was greeted with back slaps and sincere handshakes from his peers. “Thanks for being here,” one said, raising an eyebrow toward Wagner’s booth.
“We came down here to correct what we thought was gaining some unnecessary media attention,” Gregger said, although he didn’t mention Wagner by name.
He also insisted his office’s poster was only a “work in progress,” not to be taken as an official document. But the bulletin board behind him certainly looked complete, and official, with four color photographs of the hot spots Wagner had identified and twelve pages of data that went beyond synopsis and delved into the minutiae.
When Wagner visited the schools, he’d used only his Geiger counter, the least precise tool when it comes to serious radiation research. Gregger and his team, however, used three competing devices, including an oxidation chamber. Where Wagner found up to 7 percent uranium in the tiles, Gregger found a precise 2.4 percent. And the beta rays emitting from those tiles were so weak, Gregger said, it would take a student — a bare-bottomed one, no less — two hundred days, thirty minutes a day, of sitting on his keister to ever have a chance of absorbing one rad. And even then, the chances of that rad leading to cancer were fewer than 1 in 1,000.
Of course, Gregger added, “No kid is going to sit there naked for two hundred days in a row, right?”
Back at Wagner’s booth, a physicist named Howard Prichard wandered over and held a finger up to his pursed lips as he read the newspaper article over Wagner’s shoulder. Prichard is a senior scientist with a radiation health consulting group in Tennessee, and he’d sought out Wagner from the get-go. A bearded and rotund man, he played it cool as Wagner explained how the infant Toby contracted cancer in his first year of life. “I’ve never heard of a latency period so short,” Prichard countered. “One year? I’ve heard of three years, minimum. But one year seems really short.”
“Yeah, but this is an infant we’re talking about,” Wagner countered. “His cells are still dividing. He’s absorbing this radiation faster than an adult.”
“Hmm,” Prichard mumbled, rubbing a skeptical hand through his beard. “One year is really, really quick. Never heard of it.”
“Adults are three years,” Wagner said. “But infants? It can be much shorter.”
Prichard still wasn’t buying. He ended with a polite “That’s interesting” and walked away. Later, I caught up with him and his colleague, Joseph Alvarez.
“He’s high-siding it,” Prichard said. “Ratcheting up the fear.”
Alvarez interrupted. “Did you tear into him?”
“No, no,” Prichard said, then turned back to me. “It would be an extreme assumption by any standard to suggest this boy’s cancer — this sad case of this boy’s cancer — was caused by the radiation coming from the tiles. Even if he did crawl around on them all day long — and supposing they were as hot as he’s suggesting — he’d only expose the hands and knees. And the skin, compared to other body parts — the lungs, organs — is not radio-sensitive.”
Alvarez was more animated when it came to trashing Wagner and his conclusions. “We get pretty upset when people in this field are wrong with what they’re putting out there,” he said. “We’re out here trying to get people to understand radiation, not fear it. So when you’ve got one guy going around, making all these assumptions, getting all this press going … it hurts all of us.”
And so went the day for Wagner. Each time I visited his booth during the four-hour poster session, another scientist was challenging him. Call it Nerd Warfare: They argued in hundredths and thousandths, and referred to scientific journals written fifteen years ago. Most got stuck on Wagner’s belief that beta rays were able to penetrate the body, especially since most people pass by tiles for just a second or two. And even for those who take twenty-minute showers daily, their showers would need to be sheeted in decades-old tiles all but dripping with uranium. It seemed many conventioneers were leaving Wagner’s booth unimpressed, with nary a “Eureka!” from the bunch.
Wagner disputed this observation. “I’m not sure they were disagreeing with me at all,” he said, a bit miffed. “They just didn’t know all the facts.” He deemed his poster presentation a success, and said most of the people he talked to were indeed interested in learning more. They were just stunned by the novelty.
Just before Wagner put his Geiger counter in his bag, an older scientist approached the booth and peered down his bifocals for a few minutes to read Wagner’s research. “I tell ya, bud, you’re barking up the wrong tree here,” the old man said when he was done. “Those tiles aren’t going to hurt anybody. All you’re going to do is scare people.”
Wagner launched into what I was now calling “Toby’s Story.”
“We got a kid who suffered from direct exposure — for a full year — at least!”
The older man had heard enough. “You need to get some books and read,” he said, then waddled away. “I do have books,” Wagner shouted after him with a chuckle. “And I’ve read books with errors!”
Wagner claimed he hadn’t heard about the Health Department’s counter-poster, so I led him to it and asked for his thoughts. He glanced at it and then waved his cowboy hat at the board. “Oh, they followed my footsteps,” he said, laughing in a mocking-dismissive sort of way. But underneath his once-over, it seemed as though Wagner were concealing a sense of pride: that he truly delighted in the debate he had caused. “Yeah, they just went to the same places I did. Whatever.”
I pointed to where Gregger had come up with more conservative numbers, and said he’d used three different kinds of testing devices. I added that Gregger showed up solely to debunk Wagner’s theories. Didn’t he want to respond? After all, once Gregger’s report went public, it meant school principals up and down the state would refer to the Health Department’s results, not Wagner’s.
Wagner seemed not to hear this comment. He laughed, again, and took another look at the health department’s conclusion page, but mostly for my benefit.
“They’re too verbose,” he observed. “Mine is for the layperson.”
The map from the rental car agency was upside down, turned around, and so limited it didn’t show any “Texas Street.” I suggested to Wagner a quick peek at MapQuest, but he shook me off. He located a Pennsylvania Street on the map, and simply figured Texas was somewhere close by. He drove thataway.
Thirty minutes later, we’d backtracked three times. As Wagner drove on the freeway, he leaned over to read the map in my lap and unconsciously veered halfway into the right lane. A motorist on the right side swerved and hit the brakes hard. The angry driver honked, mouthed a few insults, and sped away. Wagner chuckled. “Oh, now he wants to get over in my lane. Go ahead, act like a New Yorker if you want to, pal.”
Still lost and slightly peeved, I suggested we stop at a gas station for directions. We pulled into an AM/PM and looked up at the street sign: Texas Street. “Woo-hoo!” Wagner crowed. “Man, am I good or what?” We were four blocks away.
San Diego was unusually humid that day, with no wind. The two duplexes were located on a shabby street, but they stood out with a new coat of tan paint and neatly trimmed hedges. A manicured strip of green lawn ran parallel to the row of front doors.
The four addresses that interested Wagner were blocked together, and Toby’s old unit was the first, closest to the street. A red, white, and blue bow was clamped to the black iron-cast screen door. After ringing the bell a few times and waiting long, silent minutes, Wagner turned to the house next door. “Guess they’re at work. We’ll come back.”
At the second door, an oval-faced woman named Leanne opened her door a wedge, but kept the screen door locked. The sun didn’t shine into the house, so we could only see her shadowy face. After Wagner introduced himself and said “radioactive tiles,” Leanne hollered, “Hold on. Let me go get dressed.”
During the wait, Wagner cut the tension by pointing out the plants in the yard, offering their Latin names along with brief factoids. It was like a nervous twitch; he was getting close to proving his theory, and he was getting anxious.
“That’s a White Bird of Paradise over there,” he said, “also called a Traveler’s Palm. It’s originally from South Africa, but you can find it in Southeast Asia. A lot. Also known as the Strelitzia.”
He pointed to a dead plant, raised his eyebrows, and grimaced in mock horror. “Radiation poisoning?”
Leanne came to the gate. “Good afternoon, ma’am,” Wagner began, taking it from the top. His voice quivered, as if he were asking a woman out for the first time, offering up fragments. “I’m Walter Wagner … and I’m a radiation officer here in town for the convention … a boy next door … used to live there …. his name … was Toby.”
Wagner turned toward me. “What was his last name?” I didn’t know the answer because he had never told me. I shrugged.
“Anyway, as I said, ten years ago he died of what we now believe to be radiation exposure from the tiles on the floor. They’re not home, so I can’t get in their house right now, but I was wondering if your home … had the same tiles and if I could check them, because you could have the same radioactive tiles in your home. Right now.”
“Wow. You should really contact the owner,” Leanne said.
“Well, ma’am, I’m a radiation officer, and if you want, you can read these e-mails I have here.” Wagner had the e-mails from his tipster in his right hand, and motioned for Leanne to open the door. “We’re very concerned there are other children living in the area around here, but we do think the tiles may be the reason for Toby’s …”
In his other hand, Wagner clicked his Geiger counter on. Every thirty seconds it beeped, and each time it pinged, Leanne took another look.
Wagner offered his card; she ignored it.
“Once we dug up these files,” he said, waving the e-mails again, “we got very concerned, and came to check it out.” Leanne opened the door just enough to reach out and grab the evidence.
“Card?” Wagner asked. “It’ll only take me two minutes to check.”
Leanne took the card and read. “I know, I know,” she replied. “You’re trying to help me. But I want to read these first.”
As the minutes passed, Wagner’s Geiger counter ticked off the time.
Finally, Leanne said, “I’d rather you call the owner,” and handed back the papers.
She backed away from the screen door and Wagner leaned in, the bill of his hat pressed against the screen. “They’ve been glazing tiles with uranium for years, and now it’s in our houses, 100,000 tons — in our houses!”
“Great,” Leanne said.
“Don’t feel bad! I went back to my old junior high school the other day and found out there’s radiation all over the place there, too! I did a reading and yep, it came up.”
“I know, I know, you’re trying to save my life,” Leanne said. “It’s just that, I hope you can understand the legal complications — “
“Well, those would be your owner’s legal complications.”
Leanne got curious about her old neighbors. “Is that what they’re doing over there? Are they suing?”
“Oh, I don’t know, but if you’re living in there and your tiles are causing cancer … you might … wanna sue.”
Leanne said she’d get us the phone number of the owner right away, but she’d have to hunt for it. In the meantime, she advised us to knock on her neighbors’ doors. “Check their houses. And come back.”
Two doors down, a wiry thirtyish man wearing a tight-fitting T-shirt with a bald eagle on the front answered. He stared intensely at Wagner and chomped on the edges of his brown mustache. He had a thin gold chain around his neck.
After his successful exchange with Leanne, Wagner simply held out his card and cut to the chase: “My associate and I are checking for uranium-based tiles because we believe they’re radioactive and caused the death of a boy at the end over there” — he pointed to Toby’s house — “and we think the tiles are in your home too. We can check them for you right now.”
The wiry man grinned, as if he’d been waiting all day for the chance to chew into a salesman. “No thank you, Mr. Wagner,” he said, returning the card. “I’m an educated man. I was in the Navy. And I know that uranium-based tiles haven’t been in production in this country for some time. They’re not even allowed to be imported. So there’s no way I’ve got uranium tiles in my house, and there’s no way I’m going to let you inside to check them.”
Wagner opened his mouth and jerked at the waist as if he were about to die from laughter. He turned to me and said, “Did you hear that? There’s no way uranium tiles got into his house!”
“That’s right,” the man said, inching his way out onto the porch. “I’m an educated man and I know that for a fact.”
“For a fact!” Wagner cooed. Again, he looked at me. “For a fact! Well, let’s go then — there’s certainly no uranium-based tiles here!” He turned and walked away, with the homeowner’s eyes burning holes into the back of his head. Wagner glanced at me and bobbed his eyebrows up and down as if to say, “Cuck-oo, cuck-oo.”
Then he turned to face the man with a smile. “Have a good afternoon.”
Back at Leanne’s house, she came outside and handed Wagner a card with the owner’s phone number. “He’s gonna love hearing from you,” she said.
“Yeah,” Walter agreed. “So, do you still have tiles on the floor?”
“No, I don’t,” Leanne said. “I’ve got yellow ones in the bathroom, though.” She added that they weren’t on the floor, but they surrounded the tub.
“Hmmm,” Wagner nodded. “All around the bathtub, huh?”
Leanne turned her head. “That can’t be good, can it?”
“Well I won’t know until I get inside to check. But until then, I don’t want to …”
“Yeah, just call the owner and you guys can set something up. He’ll probably say ‘Okay,’ but I think it’s just best if he knows first.”
Walter bounced his way back to the car. He’d get inside someone’s house tomorrow at the latest, and maybe even Toby’s later that night, after dinner. He steered the rental toward the hotel and then got quiet. He wasn’t laughing. His mind was on his exchange with the wiry man now. “That’s a typical uneducated response from someone who thinks he’s educated. Did you hear that? He’s in the Navy. Huh.”
Pulling up to Toby’s house at twilight, Wagner ran the passenger side wheel up the curb and parked. He got out quickly, but my door was blocked by a large prickly plant with sharp spears. Wagner was already halfway across the street, so I carefully maneuvered the door open, wiggled out, and leaned back to close the door — poke. Right in the ass, then the back, then the elbow.
Wagner stood in the middle of the street, watching my predicament from under his big cowboy hat. “That’s a Phoenix dactylifera there,” he offered. “Gotta be careful around those — oh, sorry. Guess I could’ve pulled forward to let you out.”
This time, the door to Toby’s house was open. We could see a large figure sitting on the couch.
“Hell-ooo,” Wagner chirped.
A husky female voice barked back from the shadows: “Whaddayou want?”
“Uh, okay, ma’am, I’m, er, Walter — “
“I’m very sick, sir. I can’t be bothered.”
Wagner paused at this development. Then he spoke as quickly as he could. “Ma’am, I understand. I’m a radiation officer here in town at a convention, and ten years ago a boy who lived here died from tiles on your floor.”
“You better come back with the landlord.”
“Well, we’ve called him and — “
“Come back then.”
“We can check right now. It’ll take but a moment.”
The voice sounded fatigued. “Sir, I’m very, very sick. I can’t even get off my couch. Really. I can’t be bothered.”
“Okay,” Wagner said. “We’ll come back.”
Wagner hopped off the porch, pleased again with his progress and concerned about the woman. “I hope it’s not cancer,” he said.
But within a few seconds he realized that was nonsense even by his own conclusions: Adult cells aren’t as vulnerable as the still-multiplying cells of an infant. The chances of an adult contracting cancer from the tiles were so minute, not even Wagner could defend it.
“I think she’s just obese,” he concluded.
At the hotel, Wagner left a message for the owner before he went to bed. He planned on getting inside Toby’s house the next day.
Walter Wagner grew up in the farming town of Salinas, and left for UC Berkeley in 1970 as a biology student. “Science was always fun for me,” he recalled, “and I learned something every day. You could look at something several different ways, and learn something new each time. I liked that.”
As a young lab assistant, Wagner got his first chance to handle radiation; he was intrigued by its power and potential. Radioactive material was still a relatively new thing inside laboratories. A man of his times, Wagner enlisted in the No Nukes movement, and worked for antinuclear activist Helen Caldecott. But after college, he reevaluated Caldecott’s mission. Sounding much like his own critics today, Wagner says the activist’s ideologies veered into the fringes of reason, and that her fear of what she didn’t know — how radiation and nuclear energy can be used safely to advance science, and thus society — left Wagner disenfranchised. “She’s got some good ideas, overall, but she blows a lot of her numbers out of proportion,” he says. “It was getting harder to follow her.”
Wagner never finished his physics graduate work at Cal, but was hired in 1979 as the head radiation safety officer at the San Francisco Veterans Administration Medical Center. His job was to make sure anyone who dealt with radioactivity — from X-ray machines to nuclear medicine — worked safely. The job was a bore in many ways, even if it turned Wagner into an expert on managing radiation. He spent most of his days scheming to prevent accidents that never occurred. “I was the Maytag repairman of radiation safety,” he said.
Yet reporting to his government employers also dragged on Wagner’s independent streak: “I was told to kiss ass way too much.” He left the VA after five years and hasn’t worked for another boss since. Instead, he bounced through a series of science-related consulting jobs, and a brief stint as an earth science teacher at Oakland’s Arroyo Junior High.
Thanks to “a little bit of money saved up” over the years, Wagner founded two major projects that dominate his time. He oversees an 88-acre botanical garden in Hawaii, and founded the Monterey Bay Perpetual Endowment Foundation for Wellness.
While the Hawaiian garden cures Wagner’s personal jones for botany, the Wellness Foundation oversees his many feel-good projects, which he hopes will one day assist people in living healthier lives. Recently, he doled out a grant to researchers to experiment with the latest holistic dietary supplements; another project works toward building a safer X-ray machine. And if Wagner can establish that Toby got his cancer from the floor tiles, he says the Wellness Foundation will set up a trust fund in the child’s name, as well as embark on a retrospective study of all infant muscle tissue cancers. “I’d like it,” he said, “if people learned how to prevent their diseases, instead of getting stuck being sick. That’s when it’s too late.”
That kind of consideration brought him to view ceramic tiles in a new light. In 1999, Wagner took his wife and three children to Baja Cantina in Monterey for dinner. As they waited to be seated, the kids colored in their drawing books at a Spanish-tiled table. Wagner retrieved his Geiger from the car, and the table came up dirty with radiation. Something inside him clicked.
“The kids are right there, bending over into this stuff,” he recalls, “staring straight into it … I added it up: If kids are sitting there, twenty minutes at a time, waiting for their tables, I knew it couldn’t be good.” Wagner told the restaurant’s owner, who immediately removed the table from the view of his customers. A month later, Wagner and his family returned, only to find the same table had made its way back to the lobby. This time, when he complained, the owner shooed him away and threatened to sue him.
Wagner wondered: How much uranium is still out there via ceramic tiles?. According to some estimates, about 100,000 tons. Wagner figures 75 percent of that is wasting away in dumps; the remaining 25,000 tons is still around us.
But what does this mean? It’s hard to tell, and highly debatable. To Paul Frame, co-author of Living with Radiation, the big numbers — such as 100,000 tons and ten million homes — need to be taken in context. For instance, if you test any one radioactive source — say, kitty litter — and extrapolate, the total will invariably sound scary. Frame says Americans purchase two billion pounds of kitty litter per year, and inside all that poop-gravel is 23,000 pounds of uranium. But since the mass is spread out into so many plastic bins nationwide, by the time the cat owner comes in contact, there’s little, if any, risk. “Now the neighborhood cat lady,” Frame joked, “she might be another story.”
When it comes to radiation, Frame added, the public’s perspective tends to be that any is bad. That’s why the health department was forced to respond to Wagner, even if its in-house physicists believed his claims were bogus. Still, no one at the department will come out swinging at him for causing all the unnecessary work. “Basically, we don’t really agree with Mr. Wagner and his findings,” was how health department spokesman Robert Miller puts it.
Miller wasn’t sure how much the study cost the state and its taxpayers, and couldn’t explain how state health officers choose which citizen’s complaints they respond to.
Nor could Miller say why the health office was investigating Wagner’s claim, but he guessed. “It got some” — he stopped just short of saying “media coverage,” and quickly corrected himself: “It became a topical subject and we wanted to learn more.”
Wagner wants the tiles pulled because he’s guided by a different principle in radiation safety theory. Where others are looking for the danger line, a speed limit to adhere to, Wagner looks to avoid any excess radiation possible. If we know it’s there — and it is — and we know it’s at a public school, then why don’t we simply remove the tiles tomorrow? Wagner is vexed that his fellow health physicists would allow the tiles to remain.
I asked Wagner if he thought he was obsessed with the tiles. “Obsessed?” he asks. “No. People who are obsessed focus on one thing. I do lots of things … I’m more like a person who knows a lot about what’s in the water. If there was something bad in the water, wouldn’t you want someone to tell you? I would. I just happen to know what’s in these tiles, and I’m compelled to do something about it.”
On his last day in San Diego, Wagner wore a blue Hawaiian shirt along with his hat and slacks. “Just for fun,” he said. “It’s the last day. People are relaxing now.” We were set to meet his e-mail tipster, a man named Larry, at 1:00 p.m. Then, for the third day in a row, Wagner said Larry called ahead and couldn’t make it, but we’d go out to the house anyway. Once we got there mid-afternoon, no one was home. Wagner wouldn’t get inside.
Yet he wasn’t bummed in the least. In his talk with Larry, he said he’d learned some new facts, too. First, he’d gotten it wrong about the floor tiles: The house never had them. Larry recalled the floor was linoleum.
I thought this revelation would end Wagner’s direct-exposure theory. It didn’t. Larry told him the shower — just as Leanne had said — was indeed tiled above the tub. It must have been those tiles, Wagner said, that had contributed to Toby’s death. With that, Wagner said he would try to track down the parents in the coming weeks to tell them of his findings.
I wondered if the evidence wasn’t too flimsy. The floor tiles never existed, and unless Toby crawled on the walls, the shower tiles offered no direct contact; in fact, we had to assume the boy was washed in the tub every day. Also, Wagner never conducted his own tests on the shower. All we knew was that ten years ago, as Larry had written in his e-mail, “my Geiger went crazy” when he entered the house. But he never jotted down the radiation levels, so the dosage remained unknown.
Wagner was leaning on the trunk of his rental car with his arms folded, relaxed now, his Hawaiian shirt ruffling in the breeze. “I don’t even need to get in and see it,” he reasoned. “I can visualize it. It’s there.”
In his mind, Walter Wagner saw three tiled shower walls, all of them shooting down beams of radiation onto baby Toby. The tiles were yellow, and they were very hot, he said, even if they only burned off a tenth of a millirad from each direction per hour. The gamma rays — the big ones — Wagner envisioned, were fifteen times as powerful as the betas. And the gammas could’ve seeped through.
Wagner tilted the brim of his cowboy hat toward the sun, rolled his eyes side to side, and did the math out loud: If Toby spent twenty minutes a day, every day, getting washed by his mother in that bathtub, beneath those tiles, then he would have been exposed to one rad in the first year of his life. That meant, by Wagner’s math, Toby had upwards of a 1 in 100 chance of getting cancer.
“Unfortunately,” Wagner concluded, “he was the one.”