SEMO dealing with more Magill Hall contamination

Thursday, January 11, 2007
Tape marked an area on Wednesday where radioactive material, americium-241, was found and decontaminated on a wall outside a lab in Magill Hall at Southeast Missouri State University. (Fred Lynch)

As Southeast Missouri State University's radiation safety officer, biology professor Walt Lilly has his hands full this week dealing with more radioactive contamination at Magill Hall of Science.

Lilly is overseeing yet another cleanup by an environmental crew to decontaminate interior surfaces of the building contaminated by radioactive americium-241. It's contamination that chemistry faculty member Dr. David Ritter contends the university should have addressed years ago.

"It's just pathetic," said Ritter, as a crew from Science Applications International Organization handled the radiation cleanup Wednesday.

Over the past six years, the university has spent more than $1.29 million cleaning up contaminated surfaces in the building. Most of the expense involved the initial cleanup after parts of the building were found contaminated by an americium spill that went unnoticed for at least four years.

The university also was fined $11,000 by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission for failing to make radiation surveys to determine the hazards, for failing to control activities to avoid exposure and for possessing radioactive material that wasn't authorized in the school's NRC license.

The university no longer possesses any americium.

School officials believe the spill occurred between 1994 and 1996 when a safe containing the chemical was moved into a basement storage room.

Over the years, the university has found and cleaned up more contaminated areas and removed contaminated chemistry equipment contaminated from radioactive americium.

In September, the same contractor cleaned up contamination found in July in a storage room. School officials suspect that the contamination occurred in the 1970s.

The latest cleanup over the Christmas break involves the decontamination of the concrete block walls in the second-floor hallways that lead to the chemistry labs. Lilly said another chemistry lab is also being checked for possible contamination prior to remodeling the room.

The NRC requires the university to clean up even low-level contamination, Lilly said.

On Wednesday, gray duct tape marked areas on concrete walls along second-floor hallways where radiation contamination was detected. Black markers were used to indicate the areas that had been cleaned up over the past two days.

"We use scrubbing bubbles and paper towel," Lilly said.

The hallways weren't checked for radiation during previous cleanup efforts, he said.

Ritter said the university should have checked for radiation contamination throughout the building when the problem first surfaced. The university, he said, should have kept better track of the radioactive americium decades ago.

"They ignored it for 30 years," Ritter claimed.

Southeast's cleanup efforts have included hauling off three 55-gallon barrels full of contaminated chemistry equipment, he said.

From about 1990 to 1995, Ritter said, the university auctioned off chemistry equipment that it no longer needed. Ritter said that likely included contaminated equipment. The new owners of that equipment were never notified of the possible problem, he said.

Dr. Chris McGowan

But Dr. Chris McGowan, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics, said school officials determined that any such contamination would pose little health risk.

The latest radiation problem concerns Ritter, who teaches chemistry classes on the second floor. He said students for decades have leaned up against hallway walls that have now been found to be contaminated.

But Lilly and McGowan said the contamination on the walls posed little danger.

"You would have to breathe it in or eat it," McGowan said. "The radiation doesn't penetrate your skin."

Said Lilly, "At this point, virtually none of it will come off the surface without scrubbing it."

McGowan said the latest cleanup project should be finished by the end of this week, in advance of Tuesday's start of spring semester classes.

But McGowan and Lilly said the university could face more cleanup efforts in the future. Every time the university remodels a chemistry lab and moves shelving or bookcases in the building, more radiation contamination could be uncovered.

The university, they said, will spend thousands of dollars even for small cleanup jobs. McGowan didn't have a cost figure for the latest work. But school officials said an earlier cleanup project in September cost about $10,000.

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