Critical medical research inside UW facility at risk of being lost

SEATTLE — Researchers at the University of Washington fear their work could be lost while contractors determine whether it is safe to return to the building containing 30 laboratories after a recent radiation contamination scare.

Radioactive material was accidentally released May 2 as an irradiator was being removed from UW Medicine's Harborview Medical Center Research and Training Building. Thirteen people were exposed, but no one suffered any serious effects.

The U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration says crews were using a grinder to remove the sealed radioactive part of this machine -- when something went wrong and there was a breach -- spilling radioactive powder.

Since the leak, contractors hired by the U.S. Department of Energy have been inspecting the building to determine whether it's safe for staff to return.

A source tells KIRO 7 no one is being allowed into the building to recover refrigerated samples that are part of numerous research projects. Of the 95 freezers inside the building, the source says eight are showing signs of failure.

They say that is probably due to the rising temperatures inside the building, as the HVAC system has not been brought back online since the leak.

Click here to read an email obtained by KIRO 7 that responds to concerns raised by staff.

According to the source, “each freezer can hold up to 20,000 individual specimens that have been painstakingly collected over the years. It is difficult to express with words how important these samples are - one lab has brain samples from patients with Alzheimer’s they’ve spent the last 25 years collecting. Other labs have samples from critical burn research studies, vaccine trial studies, and AIDS studies.”

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“Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, labor and samples are being lost on a daily basis. This could destroy the careers of people who have been working their entire lives on research meant to save lives and improve public health and hospital outcomes. “

A spokesperson for UW Medicine tells KIRO 7 the school is doing everything it can to protect the freezers and their contents. “We are constantly monitoring these -80C freezers. A majority of these freezers are monitored remotely. For those that aren’t remotely monitored, we do a daily walk-through to ensure that the freezers are not in distress. We have transferred the contents of 10 freezers to freezers in other buildings and have rented about 15 freezers and are transferring research samples to those freezers as needed.”

Monday afternoon, UW staff also received an update on the research animals still inside the building:

"We continue to monitor the vivarium and it has been free of contamination; there is no evidence that any animals have been exposed to the contaminant. Because the animal care area is on a different heating and cooling system, the temperature, humidity and airflow have not been affected. Care for the animals has been regular and ongoing since this incident occurred. If veterinary personnel identify any health concerns with the research animals they will communicate to researchers through their normal lines of communication."

While the building remains closed, many staff members who are unable to find alternate lab space are not able to work. Some say they are having to use vacation and sick time to cover the time off while the cleanup work continues.

UW Medicine says it is working with the human resources department and the UW president’s office to determine how to manage the time off. “We understand how frustrating this is for all of our researchers, students and employees.”

It is still unknown when the building will be cleared and all staff members will be allowed to return. UW Medicine says the Department of Energy is responsible for the assessment and cleanup since it was that agency which that was decommissioning the irradiator involved in the leak. “Although the amount of radiation is very low and not a risk to public health, the building needs to be thoroughly assessed and cleaned before people can return to work,” the UW Medicine spokesperson says, “The contractors are assessing every square inch of the building including outside areas, floors, ceilings, and the heating and cooling system.”

The Washington State Department of Health must sign off once work is complete and determine when staff can return. KIRO 7’s source says they have been told it could be weeks or even months before they are allowed back inside.