Newsletter - November 1997

BU to Spend $2m in EPA Settlement

Boston University yesterday agreed to spend upwards of $2 million on environmental improvement projects to settle federal charges that it allowed an oil spill to pollute the Charles River and mishandled hazardous waste at its medical campus.

The settlement, apparently the largest federal environmental action ever taken against an academic institution, includes a $253,000 fine and $518,000 worth of work to improve the river and a community garden near BU's medical campus.

The University also agreed to well over $1.3 million in other environmental projects, including a campus-wide environmental compliance audit," according to US Attorney Donald K. Stern and Environmental Protection Agency officials.

"It was BU that reported it to the EPA, and the actual discharge onto the Charles was minimal and was quickly confined," BU provost Dennis Berkey said. Nevertheless, Berkey said, BU agreed to the settlement because "we support protecting the environment just as strongly as the EPA does."

The fuel-oil leak, at least the fifth to come from BU property in the last decade, was spotted in January 1996. It came from a former automobile dealership building at 855 Commonwealth Ave. that is now BU's School for the Arts. Oil from a tank apparently got into a crumbling storm drain that enters the river just west of the Boston University Bridge near Storrow Drive, sending a sheen of oil out over the river. BU has since paid to reline the pipe and is in the process of cleaning oil out of the ground.

Prosecutors also alleged BU was responsible for numerous failures to properly label, inspect and handle hazardous waste at its medical school campus in the South End.

Stern said he hopes the settlement will serve as a warning to other institutions and businesses along the Charles that they will be punished even for inadvertent pollution.

From the Boston Globe 9 October 1997

Degradation of Chemical Compounds Containing Radioactivity

A refrigerator being cleaned for disposal was found to contain several radioactive compounds. Some of these compounds intended for "future use" were 10-20 years old. Two problems that exist as a result of this practice are the leaching of radioactive materials into the environment, and decomposition of the chemicals. The first problem could result in radiation exposure to unsuspecting individuals. The second problem could be uncertainty in the interpretation of research results if these compounds are used in an experiment.

A misconception about the use of labeled compounds is that the limiting factor is the half life of the radionuclide, when in fact the true limiting factor is the deterioration of the chemicals. As time passes, radiation destabilizes a compound by several different paths. First, the damage to compounds from the energy imparted by the decay of the radioisotope can cause degradation. Secondly, the compounds can react with free radicals and excited species created by radiolysis of water or other chemical compounds. This is the predominant route of degradation for most compounds. Self-decomposition is most prevalent in compounds labeled with H-3 and C-14 since much energy from decay is deposited in or around the labeled compound.

Under ideal storage conditions, some radiochemicals show little degradation over time, but some tritiated compounds can show up to a 40% decomposition in just ten weeks. A change of that magnitude can alter research results dramatically. Some of the possible methods that can reduce self-decomposition of radiochemicals include: reduction of molar specific activity; the use of a diluent; the use of free radical scavengers; low temperature storage; and adding inhibitors to the compound. While some of these methods can greatly increase the useful life of some radiochemicals, some methods can actually increase the rate of damage to certain chemicals.

To ensure quality in stored radiochemicals, they should be stored under conditions recommended by the manufacturer and verified prior to use. When in doubt, the radiochemical should be replaced with a recently purchased compound with known purity. Please call REM with any questions you may have regarding the disposal of outdated radiochemicals.

Source: Self Decomposition of Radiochemicals. E. Anthony Evans, Amersham.

Safety Committee

Consistent with the newly developed Integrated Safety Plan, REM has formed its own safety committee. It might seem odd that the individuals regarded as being the safety experts on campus would need to form a safety committee. However, for a group like REM it may be more important than for most departments. REM is made up of individuals having special knowledge in chemical safety, radiation safety, ergonomics, etc. but each group may be performing tasks that fall into another discipline from the safety standpoint. In order to address all safety issues during day-to-day duties a group which represents each facet of REM meets on a regular basis to discuss safety and ways to make the workplace even safer.

Some of the topics covered at recent meetings include cross-training for REM staff members in areas outside their expertise and performing behavioral safety audits of REM staff during their work duties. Future discussion topics will be emergency evacuation procedures and response to campus emergencies. If you would like some assistance in forming a safety committee in your group or department or need some guest speakers please contact REM and we will be happy to assist you.

Secondhand Smoke

Recently, at a meeting of the American Chemical Society, Stephen S. Hecht of the University of Minnesota Cancer Center announced the first evidence of non-smokers metabolizing a carcinogen from "second hand" smoke. He described his study of non-smokers working in a health care facility where patients smoked. Urinalysis revealed the presence of a metabolite of the potent carcinogen 4-Methylnitrosamino-1-3-pyridyl-1-butanone (NNK). NNK, which has, previously, only been found in tobacco, causes lung cancer in rodents by binding to DNA and red blood cells. In 1993, researchers had detected the same metabolite in the urine of non-smokers inhaling machine-generated smoke in a laboratory. Hecht's is the first such study to show inhalation of a carcinogen from tobacco smoke in other than a controlled, artificial condition. He says the concentrations of tobacco smoke were "similar to those in the smoking section of a restaurant."