The University of Utah radiological health department faces a civil penalty of $2,500 after being accused of allowing an employee to dump radioactive medical waste in a North Salt Lake trash bin.
But Dr. Keith J. Schiager, director of the department, denies any wrongdoing by his department or employees. He has asked the state attorney general's office to look into the state Bureau of Radiation Control's handling of the matter, saying that there appears to be an "ulterior motive" behind the complaint.The state Bureau of Radiation Control said it sent a notice of violation Wednesday. The school has 30 days to either pay the penalty or file a protest challenging the bureau's findings. Schiager said Thursday morning he had not yet seen the notice, and questioned why the department had released the violation notice to the media before he had seen it.
Schiager said that the violation notice sounds like a "frame-up," possibly because his department opposed the creation of a new state environment department. Schiager said that his department didn't like the way radioactive wastes would be regulated under the new bureaucracy. He said investigations started about the same time the university began making its opposition public.
"We never had the trash. We have never seen police evidence. This looks like a hatchet job," Schiager said.
North Salt Lake police said criminal charges are pending against an employee who is accused of tossing a sack full of radioactive medical waste into a trash bin outside a North Salt Lake business. Davis County attorney's officials are waiting to review the police report before determining whether formal charges will be filed.
The notice, filed by bureau director Larry F. Anderson, said North Salt Lake police were called to the privately owned industrial business at 95 W. 1100 North on Sept. 12 after an employee saw a man throwing a plastic sack full of test tubes and medicine bottles into the outdoor trash bin.
Davis County Health Department staffers recovered the suspicious bag. Because bottles in the sack were labeled radioactive, Davis health officials contacted both the state Bureau of Radiation Control and the U. radiological health department the following day.
The state's report says Schiager examined the trash but did not detect any radiation above what is considered "background." Anderson said background refers to naturally occurring levels.
Bureau staffers traced labels on the bottles to a Salt Lake-based laboratory, Associated Regional and University Pathologists.
A Sept. 17 test by the bureau showed the bottles and tubes were contaminated with five to 40 times what is considered normal background levels. Tests also found iodine-125 in three containers, one of which held 30 to 50 nanocuries of the radioactive substance.
Schiager said that during his test, he only monitored the radioactivity of the bag and did not open it to examine its contents. He called the state's test of the bag's contents "unscientific."
Representatives of Associated Regional and University Pathologists, which is licensed by the bureau to use certain radioisotopes in laboratory tests, told investigators that all of the radioactive waste the lab generates is transferred to the U.'s radiological health department for repackaging, storage or disposal.
The U. department is licensed by the Bureau of Radiation Control to perform this service for non-university customers. Anderson said the U. facility is the only one in the Salt Lake area that contracts to handle radioactive waste from other sources for a fee. Some companies dispose of their own wastes in accordance with plans filed with the bureau.
Anderson said direct contact, especially ingestion of the substances, could prove harmful.
Schiager said Thursday that his department never received the waste. The employee has denied dumping the radioactive waste into the North Salt Lake trash bin and is still employed by the university.
"There is absolutely no motive to dump the trash there. Why would anybody want to dump the trash there when there is a drum here? It is absolutely incredible," he said.
A bureau cross-check of the university's radiological health department records shows the inventory tracking system was not followed on four of the five most recent pickups from Associated Regional and University Pathologists. The one bag whose number had been entered in the system was not in the barrel it was supposed to be in, and the other four bags have not been located.
Anderson said there is reason to believe the same person was involved with the missing bags and that they eventually ended up in a landfill. Anderson said that since the isotopes are short-lived, if they have been buried, there should be no public danger.
All five bags were contaminated with iodine-125, a substance routinely injected into humans for medical diagnostic tests.
Anderson said he hopes this is an isolated incident. He said about 12 companies in the Salt Lake area are licensed to use these kinds of radioactive isotopes. He would not say whether spot checks of these companies are planned.