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Details revealed about radioactive contamination spread by MU researcher

Sunday, December 20, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST

COLUMBIA–The MU lab out of which a researcher inadvertently spread radioactive material last month has been temporarily suspended from using radioactive material, according a report prepared by Peter Ashbrook, director of Environmental Health and Safety at MU.

The lab in Schlundt Annex, headed by Frank Schmidt, professor of biochemistry, will have its radioactive material privileges reviewed in February by MU’s Radiation Safety Committee, according to the report.

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In addition, Schmidt, identified in the report as the Principal Investigator, will be responsible for purchasing a foot monitoring system and sticky “step-off” pads that will be placed near the lab exit to prevent future contamination, and the lab will be monitored more frequently.

According to the report, Schmidt has also restructured the duties of the researcher in question to have fewer responsibilities when working with radioactive material to reduce the possibility of distraction.

Ashbrook declined to identify the researcher.

Schmidt had no comment about the report, which he had not yet seen, or the investigation, but Ashbrook said that Schmidt has been involved and helpful throughout the process.

The researcher in question first notified Environmental Health and Safety of the contamination at 4 p.m. on Nov. 2, when he noticed that the soles of his shoes had come into contact with the radioactive isotope phosphorus-32, a commonly used radioactive isotope referred to as P-32.

Environmental Health and Safety began to investigate immediately, sending a health physicist to assess the situation. When the health physicist realized the extent of the contamination, Environmental Health and Safety dispatched six staff members to determine the boundaries of the radioactive contamination and contain it.

Using Geiger counters, they found that the researcher had spread radioactive material to several hallways and some stairwells in Schlundt Annex, Schlundt Hall, the Chemistry Building, Schweitzer Hall and a number of sidewalks connecting these buildings.  

Contamination was also found in a patch of earth outside Schlundt Annex, as pictured in a previous Missourian story, and on a custodian’s shoe.

Ashbrook’s team cleaned or removed affected areas when possible and used “encapsulation techniques,” such as covering contaminated spots on the sidewalk with epoxy.

In total, they found that the material spread by the researcher contained eight to 10 microcuries of radioactivity.

A microcurie is one millionth of one curie, which is equal to the radioactive activity of one gram of radium, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Ashbrook will prepare a separate report about the response to the contamination, but he found no reason for concern with regard to the speed and extent of his department’s response.


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