Radiological Spills and Contaminations

Despite strict adherence to all laboratory safety practices, it is possible for radioactive material contamination to occur. For this reason it is important that radioactive material users are aware of the proper procedures to follow in the event of a variety of contamination situations.

Minor Spills

Incidents that involve the release of less than 100 microcuries of a radionuclide in a nonvolatile form can generally be regarded as minor. For minor contaminations, lab personnel should follow these steps:

  • Immediately notify all other persons in the lab.
  • Restrict the area to only those personnel needed to clean the contamination.
  • Confine the spill immediately.
  • Liquids: Drop absorbent paper or an absorbent chemical (calcium bentonite) on the spill to absorb any free liquid. Decontaminate using a detergent solution, cleaning from the outside edges towards the center of the contamination.  Monitor the area as you clean.
  • Solids: Dampen thoroughly, taking care not to spread contamination. Use a detergent solution to clean, unless a chemical reaction would release air contaminants; otherwise use oil. Clean from the outside edges towards the center of the contamination.  Monitor the area as you clean.
  • Notify the laboratory supervisor.
  • Follow the Decontamination Procedures listed at the bottom of this page.
  • Notify EH&S, telephone: (515) 294-5359.

Major Spills or Large Volume Releases

A release exceeding 100 microcuries of a radionuclide in a nonvolatile form, or the release of any amount of a radionuclide in a volatile form, or the release of a large volume of material should be considered a "major" contamination event.  In such cases, lab personnel should follow these steps:

  • Evacuate the room immediately, shutting doors and windows on the way out.
  • Notify the laboratory supervisor.
  • Immediately notify EH&S, telephone: (515) 294-5359, or, after hours, Department of Public Safety, telephone: (515) 294-4428.
  • Post a "Keep Out" sign on the laboratory door.
  • Assemble those persons who were present in the laboratory when the spill occurred, but remain far enough away to assure everyone’s safety.
  • Wait for assistance and do not leave the area.

Accidents Involving Personal Injury

For any accident involving personal injury, medical treatment or assistance will always be the first priority. This may involve administering first aid and/or calling 911 for emergency medical assistance. For accidents involving radioactive materials, contamination control and exposure control are important but should never delay or impede medical assistance. If radioactive materials are involved, emergency personnel should be notified before treatment takes place, so they can take appropriate action to protect themselves as well as prevent the spread of contamination. EH&S must also be notified as soon as possible. After the injured person is treated and removed from the accident site, the previously described procedures should be followed as appropriate.

Personal Contamination

In the event of any personal contamination, laboratory personnel should follow these steps:

  • Immediately notify EH&S, telephone: (515) 294-5359, or, after hours, Department of Public Safety, telephone: (515) 294-4428. 
  • Remove all contaminated laboratory personal protective clothing (lab coat, gloves, etc.). 
  • Wash the contaminated area with mild soap and water if possible.
  • Monitor the contaminated area. Repeat washing as necessary.

Decontamination Procedures

In the event that surfaces or equipment within the laboratory are suspected or determined to be contaminated with radioactive material, the radionuclide user must initiate and complete appropriate decontamination procedures. For most relatively minor contamination incidents, the following general steps should be taken upon discovery of the contamination:

  • Mark the perimeter of the contaminated area.
  • Notify EH&S of the contamination so that their staff can more accurately assess the extent of the contamination and advise and assist in the decontamination effort.
  • Assemble cleaning supplies (paper towels, detergent in water, plastic bags and plastic gloves). Proceed with scrubbing the area from the borders to the center, cleaning small areas at a time.
  • Periodically monitor the effectiveness of the decontamination effort with surface wipes and portable instrument surveys. Place all contaminated cleaning materials, including paper towels, rags, and gloves, in a plastic bag and label as "radioactive waste."
  • Notify EH&S upon completion of the decontamination effort so that a follow-up contamination survey can be made.

Additional information on any of these procedures is available from EH&S at (515) 294-5359.