Experts warn public not to touch cylinders washing ashore

Experts warn public not to touch cylinders washing ashore »Play Video
A military marine marker.

LINCOLN CITY, Ore. – The debris that's been washing up on Oregon's coast is not from the tsunami in Japan.

The first of the foot-and-a-half-long metal cylinders washed up 10 days ago near Florence. The second came ashore at Depoe Bay Sept. 30. A third was found at Gleneden Beach near Lincoln City last week.

Explosive experts say these cylinders shouldn't be handled by anyone who happens to find them.  They're so dangerous they only want people to call 911 if they see one of them.

The cylinders are used by the military to mark locations in the ocean. They wash ashore once in a while, typically once a month. But for some reason, three washed up on the coast in just one week.

There could be more.

Military explosives experts have been destroying the cylinders by blowing them up.

The cylinders hold white phosphorous, which experts say is dangerous.

The Air Force and Navy use them to mark search and submarine tracking areas.

The phosphorous burns white-hot when it is exposed to air. Duds full of unburned or half-burned material ignite once the phosphorous inside is exposed to air.

"After a period of time they'll dry out, and then the phosphorous will contact the air and start burning again," said Detective Howard Greer of the Oregon State Police. "If people are near these things when they start burning again, you can get some very, very serious burns."

Many beachcombers are looking for tsunami debris, but most don't know what the cylinders are.

Robert Miller was scouring the beach with his metal detector on Monday not far from where the last cylinder washed ashore. He said that now that he knows what the cylinders are, he'll be extra careful.

"I'll keep looking, because I'm out here quite often, so I'll keep looking for them," he said.

The cylinders have military markings on them, and sometimes they have arming instructions. But those are also often covered up while they're floating in the ocean.