The Mystery of Karen Silkwood

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Karen Silkwood was a factory worker and union activist employed by the chemical company Kerr-McGee from 1972 until her mysterious death on November 13, 1974.

 

Upon being hired at the plant, Silkwood joined the local Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union in order to protect her personal rights as an employee. She participated heavily in a strike at the plant, and was soon given an official committee position in the union and assigned to research issues of health and safety within the Kerr-McGee plant. Her discoveries were vast and alarming: dangerous employee exposure to contamination, improper storage of material samples, and faulty respiratory equipment.

 

In the summer of 1974, Karen Silkwood testified against Kerr-McGee at the Atomic Energy Commission, claiming that she had been dangerously contaminated due to slip-ups in safety standards caused by a push by her employers to speed up production.

 

On the night of November 5, 1974, before leaving the factory, Karen Silkwood tested dangerously high for the amount of plutonium in her system. She underwent the decontamination process provided by the plant, and returned home later that night after being instructed as a precautionary measure to bring in her urine for testing for the next 5 days. The morning of November 6, she returned to the plant and filled out paperwork for the first hour of her shift. After finishing her paperwork assignment, Karen Silkwood quickly scanned her hands under a plutonium tester on her way to a meeting and tested positive for unsafe amounts of plutonium in her system. She was decontaminated again on site, and her locker and car were also tested for contamination, but nothing was found in either area. This positive contamination test seemed suspicious because she had only been filling out paperwork all morning, rather than working in the manufacturing areas of the plant. The morning of November 7, Karen Silkwood brought in urine samples for testing and was again found to have dangerous levels of contamination in her system. Upon discovering this, Kerr-McGee sent analysts to investigate chemical levels within her apartment.

 

Karen Silkwood’s apartment was heavily contaminated in areas she had made significant contact with in the last couple days. She was sent by Kerr-McGee to a laboratory, along with her roommate and boyfriend, to be tested for levels of plutonium within their systems. She was the only one who had significant levels of plutonium contaminating her body, but the doctor assured her that he had seen plenty of Kerr-McGee workers with much higher contamination levels that had turned out fine.
On November 13, 1974, after leaving a union meeting at the Hub Cafe in Crescent, Karen Silkwood was killed in a one-car crash. There is still suspicion about the level of contamination Karen Silkwood acquired in such a short period.