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September 23, 2008

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Rutherford experiments may be linked to university staff deaths

An independent review is to be carried out to assess evidence relating to radiation levels at a university building and whether there is any link between its contamination and the deaths of three occupants from cancer-related illnesses in the past 15 months.

The site was where former nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford conducted radioactive experiments a century ago. Last week, Arthur Reader became the latest individual to have worked in the building to lose his battle against cancer. Another worker, Dr John Clark, who occupied the room directly below the one in which Rutherford conducted his experiments, died in 1992.

Former university staff called for the review in a report published in June this year. They had discovered — by chance — in 2001 that The Rutherford Building (formerly the Coupland Building) where they worked had been found in 1999 to be radioactively contaminated.

Although the authors of the report, John Churcher, Don O’Boyle, and Neil Todd, state there is no direct evidence of a link between radioactive contamination and the deaths, they say the possibility obviously exists and needs investigation.

In their report, the authors highlight deficiencies in the University’s past arrangements for preserving documents relating to the management of long-term hazards due to radionuclides.

“In any other area of work this might be merely a matter of regret to historians, but the long half-life and high toxicity of certain radionuclides means that a different standard is required in this area,” argue the authors. “It is clear that an appropriate standard has not been met, or maintained by the University and, in this context, the claim that documents were destroyed to save space is shocking.”

They conclude that, owing to the lack of records of whether radiological measurements were made in the building, it is not clear whether the University failed to realise that there was a potential risk to the building’s occupants before 1999.

In 2000, an HSE inspector said in a report: “The University and Museum should have undertaken a radiation survey of the Coupland Building as soon as the possibility of radioactive contamination was noted (probably back in the 1950s). However, as the contamination is historic, it is perhaps understandable that in more recent years no survey was undertaken until the proposed construction work alerted people to the potential hazard.”

But the report also notes that the inspector was under the wrong impression that most of the rooms in the building were used for storage, with low levels of occupancy.

The report says the University should try to trace former occupants if the independent review corroborates evidence that they were at risk from high levels of radiation. It also calls on the University to review its procedures for protecting non-classified staff from radiological hazards; and review its procedures for preserving documents.

A spokesperson for the University of Manchester told SHP it has now identified an independent agency to undertake a thorough risk assessment and review of the situation.

He said: “The University will await the findings of the independent review before deciding what further action may be needed. However, we believe the evidence presented to date does not support a connection between the deaths of former staff and possible exposure to radioactive contamination. It is important to stress that we do not believe there to be any risk to current occupants of the Rutherford Building.”

An independent company surveyed the building as part of a refurbishment in 2006, and some minor contamination was found in a few locations. This was removed by specialist contractors, and the building was re-surveyed before its current occupants moved in.

An HSE spokesperson said it would be overseeing the independent assessment and monitoring its findings. He added: “HSE will review its policy on the retention of documents as part of an ongoing review of operational guides to staff.”

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