Aftermath of radiation leak at UW Harborview building continues
Written by Deedee Sun
Radiation cleanup and testing efforts are still going on more than a month after crews spilled radioactive powder at a University of Washington and Harborview Medical Center building.
The spill initially put decades of medical research at risk. Samples at risk of being lost were stabilized, but the work of nearly 200 researchers halted as the building shut down for cleanup.
About 50 people working for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration are now in Seattle from across the country to manage the aftermath.
Crews have been working on the cleanup seven days a week since the leak happened May 2.
On Tuesday, some researchers were allowed inside the building with escorts and could go up to their labs and retrieve enough materials to continue working for six weeks.
Small groups of people worked quickly to pull work from their labs at the 300 9th Ave. research and training building.
“They’re allowed 90 minutes to collect anything they can put onto a cart,” said Nicole Gibran, the associate dean for research and graduate education for the UW School of Medicine.
It’s the first time they’re back inside since the radiation leak last month threatened decades of research.
“All of my research for the past 25 years is on the fifth floor,” Gibran said.
The building was shut down with no one allowed inside when freezers preserving specimens started failing. UW/HMC was able to rent 15 freezers elsewhere to save those samples.
“We were able to salvage many of the at-risk samples, which of course represent years of collection,” Gilbran said. “Most of them are irreplaceable,” she said.
The building is still closed to the public but the day brought some relief for these scientists.
“We were kind of worried because you don’t know what’s actually going on. But actually going in it wasn’t that bad,” said Emily Yip, a UW research scientist.
With an escort from the U.S. Department of Energy, or DOE, some researchers are being allowed to pick up their samples and equipment to get back to work.
“They’re being measured as they come in, they’re being measured as they go out to make sure they’re not carrying out any contamination on their shoes, hands, clothes,” said Darwin Morgan, spokesperson for the DOE National Nuclear Security Administration.
“The majority of the work is coming inside, doing the swipes, doing air samples,” Morgan said.
The leak happened when a federal subcontractor was removing a machine called an irradiator from the building. It was being used to sterilize blood.
“The DOE has a mission to take these irradiators that are old-style machines and remove them for security reasons,” Morgan said.
“There’s newer tech that can be used in research facilities, hospitals, that are less of a threat to safety. Less of a threat for maybe terrorists coming in and doing something with it,” Morgan said.
But something went wrong when crews were removing the radioactive portion of this machine.
“They were doing a grinding process. They ground into it, which released the powder that’s inside that Caesium capsule,” Morgan said.
The incident happened on the loading dock at the back of the building, but the DOE said some low levels of radiation did get into the building, possibly through an HVAC system.
So now, crews are methodically going through every room on every floor.
In the last month, workers have taken more than 200,000 measurements for radiation and tested more than 3,000 swabs.
“There is contamination (in the building) but we are still at levels that are safe for health of the people that are here,” Morgan said.
On Tuesday, researchers loaded up yellow bins, carts, and boxes. Some of the materials being removed include brain samples and lab equipment.
“I have wound samples, I have … DNA from patients, I have RNA from patients collected since the mid 90s,” Gilbran said. She is planning to remove the work she needs from the building in the coming few days.
They’re carrying away enough work for six weeks because cleanup and testing could take that much longer.
“You want to make sure it’s safe for people to come back here. First and foremost is the safety and health of everybody that works in this building,” Morgan said.
Crews sampled the air, soil, and dirt of the areas surrounding the building and found no evidence of radiation contamination, and say the leak did not expose the public to any danger.
A separate DOE investigation will determine whether the leak was caused by human error or something that could point to improvements needed in the protocol.