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Radioactive Items in Home Lead to Arrest

Raid: Agents remove briefcases, desk, suit from the Westminster house of a scientist. Levels pose no risk, authorities say.

April 05, 2002|JACK LEONARD and MAI TRAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A scientist barred two years ago from handling radioactive material was arrested Thursday after federal environmental agents determined that his Westminster home was contaminated with the radioactive substance Carbon 14.

State and county investigators descended on Riad Mohamad Ahmed's Maidstone Street home, removing three briefcases, a man's suit and a desk that allegedly tested positive for radiation.

Carbon 14 contains low levels of radiation and is found naturally, but can be linked to cancer when ingested or inhaled. Prosecutors said the levels at Ahmed's home posed no risk to the neighborhood but required swift action, given a history of contamination problems at laboratories run by Ahmed since the 1980s.

"He's been a lab experiment gone wrong for the last 15 years," said Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Nick Thompson. "I have zero tolerance for the illegal handling of these materials."

The raid followed a report released last week by the Environmental Protection Agency citing a Feb. 6 search of Ahmed's home in which agency officials allegedly discovered radioactive contamination.

Ahmed, 61, who conducts research for a company that makes hair products, was taken into custody and then to a hospital after he complained of heart problems. He faces one charge of illegally possessing radioactive material, which carries a maximum of six months in jail.

Authorities began scrutinizing Ahmed in the mid-1980s, when state and local officials accused him of mishandling dangerous materials at a lab in Sunland. In 1997, Ahmed again ran afoul of regulators after an explosion at a laboratory he kept in Gardena.

No one was hurt, but prosecutors allege that the blast spewed Carbon 14 throughout the neighborhood and required such an extensive cleanup that federal environmental officials declared the area a Superfund site.

"It was like Chernobyl, not to the degree of the radioactivity, but because the contamination was so widespread," said former Los Angeles Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Miller, who handled the case.

"They had to strip the place down to the studs. They were in there for months. Guys in moon suits."

Ahmed pleaded guilty in Los Angeles Superior Court in October to one misdemeanor charge of illegally disposing of a radioactive substance in connection with the explosion, prosecutors said. A judge ordered him to repay the Environmental Protection Agency its $1.4-million cleanup cost.

By then, state officials had revoked Ahmed's license to handle radioactive materials, said Ken August, a spokesman for the California Department of Health Services.

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