University beefs up radiation safety rules after code violations
By Lawrence McMahen
The campus radiation safety manager says the University is lucky a recent breakdown in safety procedures didn’t threaten public health.
Debbie Frattinger says fortunately a device known as a gas chromatograph, which contained a radioactive substance and which was mistakenly sold as scrap, had a low level of radiation that posed no health risk.
Nevertheless, Frattinger says the incident is a major concern to the U of S Department of Health, Safety and Environment (DHSE) and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) which regulates the handling of nuclear substances across the country.
She says DHSE is taking action to ensure the safety breach doesn’t happen again. It is strengthening the U of S radiation safety code, increasing lab inspections across campus, and putting more-noticeable warning labels on radiation devices.
And Frattinger has sent a memo to the University’s approximately 100 holders of permits for nuclear substances, reminding them of proper procedures and urging them to comply with regulations.
In February of this year, during one of Radiation Safety Technician Dean Yurkowski’s regular biennial inspections of stored radioactive devices, it was discovered that a gas chromatograph containing an electron-capture detector in a College of Medicine department was missing.
An investigation found that shortly after the last inspection in 2002 the department had sent the gas chromatograph to the Surplus Equipment Recycling Facility (SERF), which sold it that September to a Saskatoon man for scrap metal. When he decided it wasn’t good for scrap, he discarded it at the city dump.
Frattinger says the thumbnail-sized source inside the detector would be almost impossible to find and poses no health hazard because it’s considered a low-risk source of radiation.
She says all staff handling the gas chromatograph should have known and acted according to safety procedures when they saw its radiation warning label. In not doing so, they violated at least three checkpoints in U of S safety procedures.
First, no radiation device on campus is to be disposed of without first contacting the radiation safety manager. This is so the radioactive component can be removed and disposed of properly.
Second, the device is not to be moved without having a completed Equipment/Area Release Form attached to it. The form notes any biological, chemical or radiological substances in the equipment and outlines any precautions to be taken when handling it.
And third, SERF is to contact the radiation safety manager before disposing of any equipment bearing the warning label.
“None of these procedures were followed,” Frattinger says. A letter of reprimand has been issued to the campus permit holder responsible for the gas chromatograph.
If safety infractions continue, DHSE has the authority to temporarily suspend or permanently revoke permits for the use of devices containing hazardous substances on campus.
Frattinger says she and Yurkowski will increase their on-site inspections of in-use radiation devices to once every six months, and of stored radiation devices to once a year. For high-usage substances they may even step that up to once every three months.
She says safety is an integral responsibility of line management and it is the people who are the most critical element of its success. Permit holders are responsible for overseeing and ensuring that all rules in the University’s Radiation Safety Code are adhered to.
She urges anyone with questions to see the radiation safety section of DHSE’s website, www.usask.ca/dhse, or phone her at 966-8494.
On a happier note, Frattinger says DHSE is pleased that two radioactive soil probes stolen one night in June 1999 were recently recovered safely.
The 25-kg moisture density gauges, each in an orange carrying case, were in a truck stolen from a locked Soil Sciences compound off 108th Street. The truck was found later that month, but the neutron probes for measuring soil moisture and density have been missing for nearly five years. They contained radioactive Americium-241 and Cesium-137.
A farmer in Hepburn, 50 km north of Saskatoon, found the probes on his land in May and turned them over to Saskatoon RCMP. Frattinger says the devices had some water damage but were intact.
“The radioactive sources were still contained in their shielding, so no one was directly exposed to them,” she says.
“We’re very pleased, because it was a health and environmental concern.”
Frattinger says the probes are being sent to Canada’s only low-level radioactive waste facility, in Chalk River, Ont., for proper disposal.