EtBr safety procedures

Jim Owens jow at
Fri Jun 11 14:29:18 EST 1993

In article <1va8kgINN8ni at> R.G. Walters,
mbrgw at writes:
>I don't know how things are in the States, but not long ago one whole
>department was closed down for a while (in Reading, I think - anyone have
>any more info?), for contravening safety regulations.  I don't think the
>"You can't seriously mean to stop any of us doing any work" line cut much
>ice.  Another department was fined several thousand pounds when a student
>contaminated himself with P32.  Slapdash safety doesn't just endanger the
>user, but encourages unsafe practices in those who are still technically
>being trained.


Enforcement is variable in America.   Here at NIH, the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission (and its predecesser, Atomic Energy Commission) makes yearly
inspections and always finds two or three serious violations of the
license.  On occasion they have threatened to revoke NIH's isotope
license, but it has never happened because shutting down all labs for the
violations of the few who get caught doesn't make sense in a place that
has powerful political allies.  (Although the allies are getting fewer
these days, AIDS activists still carry more than enough clout to keep us
open.)  The nearby University of Maryland had the license of one
department lifted for a while after someone found some lead "pigs"
containing a significant amount of radioactive material lying on the
ground in a parking lot.  

I don't know why the NRC cannot do the same thing here.  Usually, what
happens when our radiation safety division suspends an "authorized
investigator," s/he is not allowed to order radioactive material, but the
people working under the authorized investigator go to the nearest other
authorized person to place orders.  Theoretically, if this subterfuge is
discovered by the radiation safety officers, the other investigator's
license is also suspended.  But no one ever checks so no one has ever
been caught.  To me radiation safety seems lax at NIH.  Their main job on
a day-to-day basis is to help those who want to follow the rules and to
exert enough control on the rest of us to prevent an embarrasing accident
from appearing on the TV news.  We're not supposed to, but we can (and
do) dump radioactive material in the sinks as long as it is not
discovered by the safety people or the contractors they hire to inspect
each lab 4 times a year.  Maybe that is low enough to be OK?

A year or so ago we decommissioned a lab for isotope use so the people in
it could eat lunch at their desks.  Since then it has never been checked
by the safety people or their inspectors, even though the person who
pushed hardest for this change deliberately brought radioactive material
into the room occasionally in the form of fairly "hot" colony or plaque
lifts.  He felt that was OK because the material was in solid form.  This
investigator was an example of someone who knew the risks better than the
"idiot" regulators.  This was the one time that our "authorized user" put
his foot down.  So the system worked, but, I feel it was a near thing
since our "authorized user" would have done nothing if I had not
complained while the geiger counter was clicking merrily in the
500,000cpm range (about 0.2 to 0.25 microcurie) with all three of us

As in other areas of life, at NIH we depend on the integrity of ourselves
and our coworkers to keep the place functioning.  My worry is that the
libertarians (sorry to inject a bit of American political trivia) might
get ahead of our safety people and get us all in a little more trouble
(as Bob Gallo and David Baltimore have even if their respective behaviors
were correct).  But then I'm considered the villiage crank around here...

Jim Owens
Founding member, loose cannons anonymous.

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