Kodak Was Baffled by Damaged Film. The Truth Lay Far, Far Away

Company agreed to keep the problem quiet
By Newser Editors,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 21, 2016 11:07 AM CDT
Updated Jun 25, 2016 12:34 PM CDT
Kodak Was Baffled by Damaged Film. The Truth Lay Far, Far Away
This July 16, 1945, file photo shows an aerial view after the first atomic explosion at the Trinity test site in New Mexico.   (AP Photo/File)

In the summer of 1945, Eastman Kodak began fielding complaints from businesses who bought its X-ray film—it was spotted and unusable. A perplexed company physicist named Julian Webb began digging into the problem, and a feature at Popular Mechanics recounts how he ultimately traced it to an unexpected source: the testing of the first atomic bomb across the country in New Mexico. First, however, Webb traced the problem to a plant on the Wabash River in Indiana, which manufactured the strawboard, or "stiffener cardboard," used in the film's packaging. It seems the strawboard had been contaminated by "a new type radioactive containment not hitherto encountered," Webb would write. (It would later be identified as Cerium-141.) Soon, the same problem showed up in strawboard at an Iowa plant along the Iowa River. That both plants were on rivers were key.

Webb realized that the strawboard was being contaminated by the river water used in its production: Wind carried the radioactive fallout from New Mexico across the country, and it ended up in the rivers thanks to precipitation. The most jaw-dropping part of the story: In 1951, a Geiger counter at Kodak headquarters in Rochester, New York—about 2,500 miles away from the new Nevada Proving Ground atomic testing site—detected radioactivity after a snowfall that came just days after the site's inaugural Jan. 27 detonation. Two months later, the company threatened to sue the government over damage to its products but eventually reached a deal: The feds would let Webb know their testing schedule in advance so the company could take the necessary precautions. As a result, the public never learned of the potential risks. "I wouldn't look at Kodak with today's eyes," says an author quoted in the story. "They were doing their jobs and perhaps simply didn't know any better." Click for the full story. (More Eastman Kodak stories.)

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