X-ray scan tech’s diamond catalyst

Time for a guest post! Friend and pandemic hero Trish wrote this for her radiology colleagues in Aus but kindly shared it with her social media pals for V-day and I wanted to share it with you, too.

…I saw this photo being shared on a Radiology page and had to investigate!

“De Beer mine workers are X-rayed at the end of every shift before leaving the diamond mines, Kimberley, South Africa, October 1954.” Source

This photo depicts a miner, working in a De Beers diamond mine in South Africa undergoing fluoroscopy at the end of a shift to see whether he was smuggling diamonds out of the mine! Apparently this was common practice as occasionally workers would get caught with rocks either swallowed or otherwise hidden in body cavities, despite the risks of radiation being known about. In fact, this photo was taken in the mid-1950s, around the same time that medical bodies were warning about the overuse of radiation in places like shoe shops.

Despite this, De Beers continues to use radiation to monitor their employees to this day.
They tasked the medical equipment industry to come up with a quicker scanner that would reduce the dose to the staff performing the scans, which was so successful that it was then slightly modified and resold to South African hospitals as the Lodox, a full body scanner that allows emergency department doctors to quickly count the number of bullets in a patient and assist with triage.

This technology has been rolled out to cities around the world where gun crime is prevalent. It has also been installed in sites such as airports and prisons [ed: to debatable effect], where weapons and drugs are often trafficked across borders. Studies have shown that the technology is more capable of detecting ingested foreign bodies than conventional Digital Radiography equipment, and at a much lower dose to the patient.

A few more tweaks of the technology made it possible to even use it for orthopaedic diagnoses such as fractures and dislocations, so the machines are being further expanded to trauma hospitals worldwide. The Lodox machine essentially performs a scout view (both AP and Lat [anteroposterior; front to back. Lateral; side to side]) in 13 seconds. In trauma and mass casualty scenarios, the patients often have the scan before even having a primary survey. 

The reason the photo at the top of this post stood out to me was because I remember reading this article from Adelaide about the myth that diamonds don’t show up on X-rays, which is apparently true! Diamonds are made of carbon which has an atomic number of 6, and is very similar in density to the tissues of the human body. If you read the article (or at the very least look at the pictures) you’ll see that the diamonds are barely visible on an x-ray, while the cubic zirconias are as dense as the surrounding metal of the ring. 

So why use x-rays to look for diamonds if they don’t show up on x-rays? Well, the miners aren’t finding perfect polished gems on the floor of the mines, they’re usually embedded in some form of rock, and that is what is visible on the imaging.

(It doesn’t change the fact that alongside the terrible working conditions in South African diamond mines, workers are also being repetitively exposed to radiation in the name of security, to protect a product which has had its price deliberately inflated by artificial scarcity for decades purely to keep De Beers in business, but I’ll keep that rant to myself for now.)

Happy Valentine’s Day!


Further reading

Additional comments (Noodlemaz):

It’s quite ridiculous how the “stealing” of diamonds by workers is framed as such by mine operators; as if their right to take the rocks out of the ground and country for profit trumps all else. But that’s what money and power do for you, and why “[il]legality” is rarely a useful sole indicator of an act’s [im]morality.

De Beers knows that there’s an increasing trend for younger people, when not choosing to forego the cliché altogether, to seek more ethically sourced and produced diamonds. They’re just adapting their business.

But diamond mining and the business as a whole has always been about taking resources. Even with artificial diamonds, there’s no way all of that wealth can flow back. Certainly no way the lives lost can ever be compensated for, especially given ongoing human rights violations in the forms of child labour, murder, assaults, environmental devastation and overall failures to care for the poor communities producing the product that makes the company and many like it so extremely rich.

Communities that rely on income from diamonds still need that custom, but there is still a way to go before buyers elsewhere could be fully confident in even the most well-researched purchase. This is also not a problem that artificial diamonds can solve.

In 2003 the diamond industry established the Kimberley Process, an international certification system designed to reassure consumers that the diamonds they bought were conflict-­free. But more than 10 years later, while the process did reduce the number of conflict diamonds on the market, it remains riddled with loopholes, unable to stop many diamonds mined in war zones or under other egregious circumstances from being sold in international markets…

a truly fair-trade system would not only ban diamonds mined in conflict areas but also allow conscientious consumers to buy diamonds that could improve the working and living conditions of artisanal miners…

there is almost no way to know for sure that you’re buying a diamond without blood on it… too often the people who do the arduous work of digging those precious stones from the earth are the ones who benefit the least. The only way that the blood will finally be washed away from conflict diamonds is if there is a true fair-trade-certification process that allows conscientious consumers to buy Congo’s artisanal diamonds with peace of mind—just as they might a cup of coffee.

Blood Diamonds – Time Magazine

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