LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) – Dozens of businesses, government agencies and schools nationwide are counting exit signs that contain a mildly radioactive compound and are to report any losses to federal regulators after Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said it could not find 15,000 of the signs.

At issue are glow-in-the-dark signs that contain tritium, a hydrogen isotope with a radioactive strength similar to that of material in many smoke alarms.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not told any organization to stop using the signs, which it says are “inherently safe.” And no special license or worker training is required to handle them.

But disregarding federal rules for disposing of the signs can lead to an expensive cleanup later because “a damaged or broken sign could cause minor radioactive contamination of the immediate vicinity,” according to a fact sheet on the NRC Web site.

The NRC says tritium emits “low-energy beta radiation that cannot penetrate a sheet of paper or clothing. If inhaled, it leaves the body relatively quickly.”

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Daphne Moore said the signs were used in about 4,500 Wal-Mart facilities in the U.S. Wal-Mart bought the missing ones between 2000 and 2007, when it built or remodeled thousands of Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club and Neighborhood Market stores in the U.S.

The NRC said Wal-Mart bought 70,000 of the signs.

The agency asked 61 entities from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to the Outrigger Hotel in Honolulu – any buyer of more than 500 signs – to inventory them and report whether any could not be accounted for, according to the release.

“Wal-Mart’s inability to account for all the tritium exit signs the company purchased demonstrates that organizations may not be fully aware of the regulatory requirements for owning these signs,” said George Pangburn, NRC deputy director for Federal and State Materials and Environmental Management Programs.

The world’s largest retailer said Tuesday it has checked all of its U.S. stores and removed any signs it found.

“We assembled a staff, that included contractors, and went to each store and club in the U.S. and Puerto Rico,” Moore said. “The program was a complete inventory and removal and replacement.”

The team talked to staff, reviewed documents and signs on hand, she said, adding that the same team removed the signs. She said the signs were disposed of according to proper procedures.

She also said, however, that the missing signs may have been installed in an “unexpected location.” Or they may have been disposed of before the company began its organized removal of the signs.

Wal-Mart said it has replaced the signs with other non-radioactive notices that can be seen in the dark.

Included in the list of groups named by the NRC are retailers, such as Home Depot, and federal operations, such as the General Services Administration and the Smithsonian Institution. Also included are other businesses, state government entities, universities and school districts.

The NRC gave organizations 60 days to respond to its request for an accounting of the signs, information on how they have been handled and explanations of any discrepancies with the agency’s records.

“They are also subject to NRC or state inspection and enforcement action (including fines) for violating … requirements,” the NRC said.

On the Web:

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Tritium Fact Sheet: .html

AP-ES-02-17-09 1748EST

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.