Debbie Knight

Radiation safety tales, part 2: Shrimp tails and banana peels

In observation on August 10, 2011 at 10:36 am

The janitorial staff who work in university research buildings are given special training on what laboratory waste is safe to take and what is not. For example, a gray bin with no labels on it — okay to empty. But a box bearing a biohazard or radioactive symbol  is not.

A few years ago, we had a very new janitor.

After he had come through our lab and emptied our trash cans, I noticed that our half-full box of radioactive waste (to which we were still adding waste, so it wasn’t sealed) was suddenly empty.

What???

By the time we figured out what happened, the janitor had gone to dinner. We had no idea where the radioactive waste material might have gone – was it in the dumpster? Was it still in his wheeled cart? Was it in the pile of sealed trash bags outside the janitorial closet? Yikes!

While it was only a few minutes the janitor was gone, it felt like hours as we fretted over the fate of the radioactive waste.

It turned out it was in his wheeled collection bin — which we only figured out after my boss (yes, I said my boss) rummaged through shrimp tails and banana peels to find something he recognized from our radioactive experiments.

We, upon the advice from the radiation safety officer, placed the entire contents of the bin in our  radioactive waste box and sealed it. We of course performed inspections of the janitor’s wheeled bin, a few door knobs, etc. which came up free from contamination. Shew!

Now with some radioisotopes you can allow the radioactive material to lose it’s radioactivity over time in the lab. But other isotopes, such as tritium (which this particular radioactive waste was) you have to pay for Radiation Safety to come and take the box away so that it can be stored in special location for years and years. At the time, the going rate was $650 for the radioactive waste container to be hauled away, which was mostly regular (non-radioactive) trash.

I was glad that they took the container soon thereafter — I couldn’t imagine how badly those shrimp tails and banana peels would smell in a few days.

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