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Researcher accidentally carries radioactive material out of MU lab

Wednesday, November 4, 2009 | 8:53 p.m. CST; updated 11:53 p.m. CST, Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Kevin Fasken of the MU environmental health and safety department passes a Geiger counter over an area of contaminated dirt outside of Schlundt Annex on Wednesday. Geiger counters measure ionizing radiation and help the cleanup crew locate the pockets of radiation left from a phosphorus-32 spill last night.

COLUMBIA – Portions of an MU building have been cordoned off after an MU researcher inadvertently spread radioactive material Monday evening by foot — literally.

MU spokesman Christian Basi said that a researcher in a lab on the first floor of Schlundt Annex accidentally spilled phosphorus-32, a radioactive isotope, which made it onto his shoes. He then walked in and out of the lab wearing the contaminated footwear.

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The researcher notified MU's environmental health and safety department as soon as he realized what had happened, Basi said, and the department responded "very, very quickly."

There were very few people in the building at the time, he said, and the department soon determined that the contamination posed no health risks to MU students, faculty and staff.

No classes have been canceled, and no students were involved, Basi said, but access to six labs near the site of contamination has been restricted.

The environmental health and safety department is surveying the affected area, which includes space outside Schlundt Annex, to find and remove or clean all affected materials.

The department will be conducting an investigation to determine exactly what happened, and disciplinary measures — if any — will be determined after the investigation.

Basi said that anyone working with radioactive material has to have been authorized and trained to do so.

Peter Ashbrook, director of environmental health and safety, said the department has "deployed a good hunk of our staff."

Department employees are using Geiger counters to find contaminated material and then either remove it or clean the area.

Ashbrook wasn't sure how long the process would take.

"These things can be tedious," he said.

Phosphorus-32 has a half-life of roughly 14 days, Ashbrook said, which is considered to be a short half-life. 

The department will keep the removed material until it is no longer radioactive. While it typically keeps wastes containing phosphorus-32 for six months before disposing of it as nonradioactive waste, the small amounts present in this contaminated material might allow the department to dispose of it earlier, Ashbrook said.

The department will not begin its investigation into the accident until it has completed its decontamination work.

One MU professor who works in the basement of Schlundt Annex said he wasn't alarmed by news of the contamination.

"I don't feel any danger," said MU biochemistry professor Michael Henzl. "This is not Chernobyl."

Henzl suspended radioactive activity in his own lab several years before because of concerns for incidents such as Monday's spill.

"You've got to take the radiation safety seriously," Henzl said.

His research looks at calcium binding proteins, and he found that using calorimetry has been more effective for measuring activity than his previous use of the radioactive isotope calcium-45.

Phosphorus-32 is one of the most commonly used radioactive isotopes at MU campus, Basi said.

The potential risk of airborne exposure to phosphorus-32 is minimal, Henzl said.

"The amount of ionizing radiation from being out in the sun is greater," he said, but he added that if the material were ingested, it would be a serious problem.

Access to the area will remain restricted until the environmental health and safety department has determined that it is safe, Basi said. "We will keep it cordoned off until we are positive it's clean," he said.


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