Debbie Knight

Radiation safety tales, Part 1: Invasion of the bunny suits

In observation on August 8, 2011 at 10:17 am

The last thing you want to become is an example – especially an example of what not to do. But that’s exactly what our lab became.

Before there was online training for general radiation safety, you had to sit in a classroom for a few hours listening to health physicist tell you about radioactivity and how to safely handle it. You would also hear stories about mishaps in the laboratory setting. One mishap in our lab was recounted numerous times over the years.

Our lab had a spotless record for many years before the arrival of a post-doctoral researcher we’ll call Dr. Moon (not her real name). She went through all the required training and began using the radioisotope S-35 in her experiments. S-35 is not a very powerful radioisotope, it’s hard to pick up with the Geiger counter (or survey meter – a handheld portable instrument used to detect radioactive materials). She swore up and down that she knew how to handle radioactivity safely.

(Of course you can see where this is headed …)

During a routine radioactive inspection of the lab, which has to be done on a weekly basis if there have been any radioactive experiments carried out in the lab, I discovered that the door know to our lab was “hot.” Since this was unexpected, I repeated the inspection of the door knob. It really was contaminated with radioactivity.

This situation had never come up before.


We called our radiation safety officer for his advice on how to proceed. Obviously decontaminating the door knob was a priority, but we weren’t sure how far-reaching the contamination went since it was found on a door knob everyone had access to, including the cleaning staff.

Now to put this in perspective, the amount of radioactivity on the door knob was tiny (about 0.01 mCi or less) compared with the amount of radioactive iodine that is used to treat patients with hyperthyroidism (about 150 mCi). But any radioactivity in a laboratory above a certain threshold, and especially on something touched by everyone like the door knob, is a concern that shouldn’t be taken lightly. It needs to be decontaminated and the extent of the contamination assessed.

Before we knew it, several radiation safety personnel arrived in “bunny suits” (disposable overalls), shoe protectors, survey meters, and face shields. It looked like we were being invaded by a top-secret military force or a special task force from the CDC trying to contain an Ebola outbreak.

Bunny suits worn during an Ebola outbreak similar to the bunny suits worn by the radiation safety personnel who inspected our lab.

These bunny-suited people surveyed the hallway, the restrooms, the departmental office, the building doors, and even followed us out to our cars! And to the dismay of Dr. Moon, we (including our boss) had to provide a urine specimen (here’s a cup, give us a sample)! She was mortified!

As it turned out, they detected a tiny amount of radioactive contamination on a main building door (much less than what was on our lab door), so it was a good thing they came to investigate.

Thank goodness for routine inspections (though I must say that they are often inconvenient to perform, I feel better knowing working surfaces are safe to work on).

Yes, this story was told many times over to future radioactive users. We would hear a trainee say “Hey, I heard about a lab who…” and we would know that, once again, our lab was used as an example.

To our credit, we handled the situation properly. We did our routine inspection, discovered a problem, and reported that problem to university officials. And Dr. Moon was no longer allowed to use radioactivity in our lab.

  1. One positive thing to come out of being an “example” is that you’ve enlightened the future. Hopefully, the same mistake won’t be made again, all because of you. 🙂

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