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Lab loses radioactive package

Radioactive material has gone missing from Cambridge University, leaving the institution facing two criminal investigations.

This week the Environment Agency confirmed that it is conducting investigations with a view to prosecuting Cambridge for breaches of the Radioactive Substances Act 1993, which it enforces.

The Health and Safety Executive, which enforces the Ionising Radiations Regulations 1985, also confirmed that a criminal investigation was under way.

A spokeswoman for the Environment Agency said: "We can confirm that the university is being investigated by ourselves and the HSE on a number of matters. But we have do not yet have a prosecution date and our solicitor has advised us not to give details."

This latest breach is at least the fifth of a series of safety problems at the university in recent years (see box). It emerged in this week's annual report of the Cambridge General Board that in March 1998, the department of biochemistry reported that "a small quantity of radioactive substance could not be accounted for". The material went missing after a delivery to a laboratory in the biochemistry department.

The report said the board viewed the "significant breach of safety legislation" with "grave concern" and acknowledged that there had been "similar incidents".

In 1997 the same department was found to be holding the highly toxic radioactive metal americium without authorisation.

Cambridge confirmed that the lost material was a radioactive phosphorus, phosphorus-32, used in DNA research and the medical treatment of some diseases. The university said that the department of biochemistry is a secure premises, and the loss of the material posed an "incredibly small" risk to the public. The volume of liquid lost, said the university, was less than a "single drop from a dripping tap". The substance, which contained less radioactivity than doses used in medicine, would already have decomposed since the loss in March and radioactivity would now be undetectable, the university said.

Hugh Robertson, head of health and safety at the trade union Unison, said that prosecutions for such breaches were "very rare". "It is not uncommon for there to be accounting and administrative problems in universities," he said. "But for a prosecution to be considered, it is obviously more than that."

The HSE said that there have been only five prosecutions, with five successful convictions, under the Ionising Radiations Regulations in the past year. Two of the prosecutions were at the Dounreay power plant, where the HSE found plutonium contamination.

Following the scare, Cambridge is reviewing its health and safety arrangements.

Professor Sir Tom Blundell, head of the biochemistry department, was unavailable for comment when The THES went to press.

HEALTH AND SAFETY SCARES AT CAMBRIDGE

* In November1997 the Environment Agency issued an enforcement notice after a radioactive substance was discovered in the department of biochemistry that the university was not licensed to hold.n The agency said that the breach was "the second similar incident to be reported by the university within the past 12 months".

* In summer 1997, the HSE carried outan inspection of the department ofchemistry.

Its report, in January 1998, uncovered problems with "the management of health and safety not only in the department of chemistry but also in the university as a whole".

* In September 1995 stocks of anthrax bacteria were destroyed after the HSE discovered the deadly bug was being handledin a sub-standardlaboratory in the department of clinical veterinary medicine.

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