Suspected illegally stored radioactive gas leads to U.S. Attorney's investigation

Wednesday, March 3, 2010 | 9:25 p.m. CST; updated 12:06 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 5, 2010

*CORRECTION: Phil Silverman is a chemistry professor at MU. An earlier version of this article misidentified him. Additionally, Silverman said he couldn't comment on why germanium gas could be used and asked to clarify that it should not be used on cookware. An earlier version of the article misquoted him.

JEFFERSON CITY — A federal investigation into an incident of radioactive gas in Columbia has been confirmed by the Natural Resources Department.

A state environmental official said last week that the Natural Resources Department found germanium, a radioactive gas, being illegally stored in the Columbia area within the last month. The official asked to remain unnamed.

An official with Missouri's Natural Resources Department confirmed Friday that there was an active investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office involving illegally stored radioactive gas but declined further comment.

The department cannot "comment on the situation due to an active investigation into the matter by the United States Attorney's Office," said Mark Conner, spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources Waste Management program.

Conner referred all questions to Don Ledford, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office Western District.

Ledford said as a matter of procedure the U.S. Attorney's Office does not comment until charges are filed. Ledford refused to confirm if an investigation was ongoing in the matter, referring all questions to the Natural Resources Department.

Jessie Haden, a spokeswoman for the Columbia Police Department, said her department had no record of radioactive gases being illegally stored in Columbia within the last month.

Haden said matters involving hazardous gases are generally dealt with by the Natural Resources Department, though they may contact the Police Department for support reasons. She said that if police were contacted in a support role, a report would not necessarily be generated.

Haden said that if the gas was found outside of the Columbia city limits, Natural Resources Department would have contacted the Boone County Sheriff's Department. Calls to the Boone County Sheriff's Department were directed to Major Tom Reddin and had not been returned Wednesday.

The environmental official cited a version of the element germanium as the type of gas found by the department.

Paul Sharp, a professor in the MU chemistry department, said common forms of germanium gas can either be germanium tetrahydride or tetramethyl germanium.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said short-term exposure to germanium tetrahydride can result in high-risk health problems. These could include malaise, headache, dizziness, fainting, breathing difficulty, nausea, vomiting, kidney injury and the breakdown of red blood cells, according the Centers for Disease Control.

Phil Silverman*, a chemistry instructor at MU, said inhalation of the gas is not recommended for humans.

Silverman said germanium is not a gas under normal circumstances. Germanium as a solid, Silverman said, can be used as a semi-conductor of electricity. Silverman said he could not comment on the why germanium gas would be used without using the specific chemical compound.*

He said he could not think of a reason why someone would be storing the gas.

Connor would neither confirm nor deny that the gas was germanium.

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Glenn Rice March 5, 2010 | 11:10 a.m.

Was the gas actually radioactive? Germanium, like most of the first 90 or so elements, comes in radioactive and non-radioactive versions. Of the five naturally-occurring types, only one (Ge-76) is even slightly radioactive, and it's the least-common variety, amounting to only about 7% of of all natural Ge.

This is a weird story. Why would anyone want to use a "radioactive", hazardous gas (or any other kind of gas) on cookware anyway? Does Phil Silverman really need to mention that? It's not like the average person is going to find a random tank of gas & think, hmm, wonder if this will enhance the non-stick properties of my omelet pan?

I'm not a chemist or physicist (see my comments on the "Haiti-sized earthquakes occur multiple times each year" story for proof), but I think I can safely offer this advice: Folks, if you run across a glowing pool of fuming liquid during your daily routine, DO NOT dip your toothbrush in it!

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