At least three researchers, and possibly scores of students, may have been contaminated by various levels of radioactive gas at the University of Maryland as the result of a leak of the potentially dangerous element tritium.
The leak was discovered last Wednesday by the university's radioactive safety office during a routine monthly [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] chemical laboratories at the Martin Engineering Building on the College Paark campus. The ground floor was sealed off Wednesday night, and radiation experts have spent the last five days clearing up the leaked element with water and liquid detergent.
"We worked as cautiously as possible as soon as we discovered the dangerously high levels of radioactivity," said Provost Jospeh Marchello. "The clean-up process has dropped the radiation levels to a point considerably below the level where there would be any ill effects."
The tritium, a radiation-bearing hydrogen isotope, leaked from a supposedly nonradioactive metal that had been used in an experiment conducted by doctoral student Robert Burger, Professor Richard J. Arsenault and post-doctoral student Ragha Muran.
The three researchers have been examined daily for radioactive contamination. All three were found to have dangerous levels of tritium in their bodies last week, but the levels have dropped in the last two days.
"We don't expect these people to suffer any ill effects," said Marchelle. "If you get enough of any form of radiation it can kill you, but we're not talking about anything of that sort here."
Tritium, a man-made element, is one of the radioactive isotopes of hydrogen. It emits beta rays, which are not considered as dangerous as several other forms of radiation.
Burger had been conducting experiments with a tritium-treated metal since last August. The metal, niodium, was infused with the radioactive element as the Savannah River Laboratory in Aiken, S.C., then shipped to College Park by mail.
"The understanding was that there would not be any active radiation in the metal when it got to may laboratory," Burger said last night."I can't be naive enough to say the possibility didn't exist, but on one expected it."
Burger said he has suffered no ill effects from his exposure to triitum. In mild doses, the radioactive element is harmless. "That's about all the scientists know," Burger said. "There have been some ill effects from it when tested on animals. But what relatively high doses can do to you is unclear."
Burger said the research on the dangers of tritium "amounts to a Catch-22 situation." He explained: "The government sets the danger levels so low that they conclude there is no harm to it. But that has to be a matter of debate. I've heard some reports that it can settle in one part of your body and have an cancerous effect. I've probably been exposed to it eight hours a day for several months. That has to frighten you."
One feature of the odorless, colorless gas is that it can attach itself to anything and spread quickly. As a result, the radioactive safety office at the university has found tritium readings in some unusual places while investigating the leak.
A fairly high level was found in the closet of Burger's apartment in Silver Spring. Milder doses were found in Burger's car and on the roof of the engineering building.
"There are hundreds of students who travel through the engineering building every week, Burger noted. "We don't know whether the tritium was around before they discovered it last week. But if it was, all those students probably got various doses of it. It would just stick on their shoes."
Marchello noted, however, that there was no danger to anyone who came in fleeting contact with the radiation. "The campus isn't even in session this week and won't be until May 25," he pointed out. "There should be no cause for alarm among students.
There was one incident last Thursday night that did temporarily frighten university officials. Late in the evening, after cleaning the ground floor hallway of the engineering building, two janitors ignored the warning signs that were posted on the laboratories and entered one for a cigarettee break.
"They were just resting in there, right where the leak was the worst," said Marchello. "Luckily, the state police came along and got them out of there."
Marchello said university officials are uncertain why the shipments of niobium contained the radioactive element. "We not think it might have been a mistake in labeling on the part of the people down at the Savannah River plant," he said. "But we can't say for sure."