Keith Macdonald was exposed to high levels of radiation from naturally occurring radioactive materials (“NORM”) in 2000 while working at an oil well in Syria. Since then, cancerous lesions have developed across MacDonald’s body and his son is dead from leukaemia. His life has disintegrated, and in his eyes, fault lies with the third richest company on earth — Royal Dutch Shell.
The story of how MacDonald got here is a tale of adventure and tragedy fit for a Hollywood thriller, only it is real. Even with many unknowns, MacDonald’s case unearths a shocking part of the world’s most powerful industry that somehow has remained hidden for generations.
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 second part. You can read Part 1 HERE and Nobel’s full article HERE.
That fateful day
On 1 August 2000, MacDonald was called out to check the Thayyem-107 well. It would be a fateful job.
A driver took him in a company SUV and he arrived at the well in the late morning, with temperatures boiling and the weather dry. A piece of piping connected to the wellhead called an expansion loop was corroded and had to be replaced. As MacDonald recalls it, his boss, a Shell official named Brian Welch, told him, “We need to replace this piping fast because this well is a big producer—go out there and make sure it’s done.”
To inspect the pipe, MacDonald had to put his hands inside the valve and run his fingers around the seal to feel for corrosion. He wore standard work boots and coveralls, but no gloves or respirator. Despite radioactivity being a known danger in Syria, he says he had never been informed by Shell before taking the job that the task involved contamination risks. And nobody mentioned anything about radioactive elements, which can hitch onto dust and blow about freely in the wind.
It’s an incredibly dangerous exposure pathway because tiny dust particles can contaminate virtually everything they touch, such as a worker’s boots and clothes. They can also easily, and unknowingly, be breathed into the body or ingested when someone licks their dust-coated lips. That day at Thayyem-107 “was so damn hot and dry,” remembers MacDonald. “The valve was caked in dust, and I had my bare hands in the dust. Dust was in the air, and dust got all over my body.”
The valve was indeed corroded and would have to be replaced, but there wasn’t a replacement onsite. MacDonald ordered a safety test that would check the pipe’s strength, then walked off to smoke a cigarette. He had been at the wellhead for 45 minutes. It was now near noon and blazing hot. He stepped inside a little cabin that served as an office to make a cup of coffee and wait for the safety test. A paper on the desk caught his eye: “Al Furat Petroleum Company Radiological Survey and NORM Precaution Report.”
It revealed that at 8:09 that morning a radioactivity inspection had been conducted at the Thayyem-107 well and the numbers were off the charts. In fact, the report stated that in order to do work on the site, rubber gloves, rubber boots, goggles, an impervious coverall and air-supplied respiratory equipment were all needed. Plus, the area was to be protected by warning signs and workers were, “to be checked for contamination before leaving [the] radiological area.” None of these protocols had been followed.
One way to measure the amount of radioactivity being given by a surface or object is with a scientific unit called Counts Per Second, or CPS. According to the report MacDonald found, the background level of radioactivity at the site was four CPS. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission says an area is considered a “hot zone” at five CPS. Yet, the report MacDonald had found indicated readings at the wellhead for beta particles, a type of radioactivity that can pass through the skin and cause genetic mutations and cellular damage that leads to cancer, of 6,336 CPS, an astonishing 1,584 times background levels.
“It’s a pretty darn big exposure,” says Dr. Marco Kaltofen, a US nuclear forensics scientist at Worcester Polytechnic Institute with two decades of experience examining radioactivity around the world. (Kaltofen has testified as an expert witness on radioactivity in numerous legal cases and before the US Environmental Protection Agency; DeSmog passed him the report MacDonald had found).
“This worker certainly has a potentially large internal exposure from ingestion or inhalation or both,” Kaltofen added, “under normal circumstances, this type of exposure should have generated a nasal swab and urine or faecal test of the worker.” MacDonald received no such thing.
He dashed back into the heat, horrified over the harm he had so quickly and silently bestowed upon his body, furious that he was not informed by his seemingly trustworthy superiors, and completely unaware of the depths of the rabbit hole he had just stumbled down.
“I asked the Syrian workers if they knew there was radiation there and they looked at me like I had just landed from Mars,” says MacDonald. He had the impression that “it was obvious they were being kept in the dark.”
MacDonald and the Syrian workers at the site were not the only ones. To this day, much of the world remains in the dark on the topic of oil and gas radioactivity, and nowhere is the lack of knowledge so stark as with the industry’s own workers, who are regularly lulled into a false sense of security.
Regulatory agencies, weakened in countries like the UK and US by defunding and deregulatory efforts, are unable to ensure safety standards are effectively met. A lack of attention from the media and medical community means stories go untold. And oil and gas operators generally fail to fully inform their workers of the risks, despite knowing they exist. That combination of factors means MacDonald’s story is just the tip of the iceberg.
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’.