NIST shows how to handle a toxics problem

In case you didn't know, the Boulder, CO site of the National Institute of Sandards and Technology (NIST) had an accidental spill of plutonium-239 on June 9 and the initial actions taken would have an industrial hygenist pulling her hair out (read more at C&EN). Basically, a guest researcher* cracked a bottle, didn't realize it, and when he did here's what he did: He locked up the sample, moved some of his materials, and washed his hands in the sink. As you might have guessed, he wasn't trained to work with radioactive substances, which is required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Basically this was the big mistake. NIST made some other mistakes; all the people in the lab were moved to the corridor and someone suggested that they take off their shoes so as not to spread the contamination but what they really did was end up contaminating their feet and socks too since the corridor was already contaminated (a good assumption that haz-mat pros make: contamination has spread much farther and faster than you think possible).

What they did right
Okay, so people make mistakes. This isn't an excuse but since it happens all the time it's gratifying to see openness, apologies, and responsibility taken compared to the usual denial, defense, stonewall approach. The acting director made no excuses; NIST has already changed its safety training and emergency resonse prodecures, including getting outside evaluators to help. The director also shut down all radioactive work at Boulder immediately. Most importantly, NIST has been, my all accounts, very open with the public and the local community.

This isn't to say this shouldn't have been prevented. It should have. Somewhere around 20% of the sample isn't in the lab; it's in the public sewer, the people in the lab, the air, ETC. It was a collosal screw-up for a place that is supposed to know how to handle radioactive substances and take appropriate action in the event of an accident. NIST was 0-2 in this incident.

A good thing to come out of this is that because of NIST's transparency and acceptance of help, the problems will get fixed, and that's what really matters. Organizations should think of this the next time someone fires off a critique. If it has some truth, it's easier to simply take it and say 'you're right, what can we do to fix this' than to get defensive. For one, it kinda takes the wind out of the sails of the angry advisary. Two, it allows you to get some help in fixing what you probably already knew was a problem instead of tring to fix it on the sly while denying it exists.

*Why do all the reports continually refer to the guest as a "foreign guest researcher"? Is that pertinent? Dang foreigners.


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To preempt some nit-picker out there:
Yes, Radioactivity is technically a physical damage not a chemical one so many pople don't consider it within the realm of toxicology. I would counter with the fact that at the basic level, chemistry is physics. Whether a chemical breaks a DNA strand by prying apart the physical bonds or it is done by radiation, it's all the same to the body; it's broke.

Yes, Radioactivity is technically a physical damage not a chemical one so many pople don't consider it within the realm of toxicology.

What do you mean by 'Radioactivity is technically a physical damage' ? In this case, the origin of the radioactivity is nuclear, but collisions between alpha particles and molecules can have many different results. For example, molecular bonds might be broken, which would be chemical damage. Pu-239 also emits neutrons, due to spontaneous fission. These can also break molecular bonds, but in addition, if a neutron strikes a nucleus, it may stick, changing the isotope of the nucleus, probably to something unstable. That would be nuclear damage, but in many cases, the new isotope would rapidly decay into a different element - resulting in a change to the chemistry of the molecule.

I'm the other nitpicker, here only to applaud you for "angry advisary" -- a keeper.

"Let me give you a little advice," he snarled.

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 30 Jul 2008 #permalink

Since I agree with you, it's hard to argue. Suffice it to say, that many people don't consider radiation damage to be toxicology. In fact, many high-powered toxicology programs include no training in radiation. Silly.

Thanks Hank, I rather liked it myself.