Inquiry rules lab cancer deaths were not linked to radioactive material

An inquiry into three deaths has found they were a coincidence but the families of the dead men remain unhappy
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A rash of early deaths from cancer has been linked to radioactive material left over from 100-year-old experiments conducted in Manchester University's Rutherford Building by Ernest Rutherford, the father of modern nuclear physics. Last week an investigation by Professor David Coggon of Southampton University concluded that the deaths were probably coincidental.

But I can reveal that the Coggon report has failed to satisfy the relations of those who died, who will now look to the coroner's court, and perhaps then the High Court. Solicitor Liz Graham, a campaigning Manchester lawyer, who represents some of the relations, has written to the coroner to say that Professor Coggon's report is deeply flawed.

The university, which appointed Professor Coggon, made his remit far too narrow, she has told the coroner, and the report fails adequately to cover even that narrow remit properly. "Because no record was kept of the radiation measurements before 1999, he assumes they must have been at a safe level," she says. "That is not a safe assumption."

Coggon says that he is comfortable that the assessment of risk was soundly based. "If measurements had been made before 1999 and they had not shown anything untoward, it might be understandable if the records had not been retained."

The Manchester coroner may well take Ms Graham's representations seriously. When, earlier this year, it was announced that yet another academic, Professor Tom Whiston, was dying an untimely death of pancreatic cancer, the coroner took the extraordinary step of contacting his relations while he was still alive, to ensure no burial took place until he had examined the body.

"He kept my father's body and delayed the funeral for a month" says Professor Whiston's son Daniel. "It was hard for the family, but if it helps us get to the truth, it will have been worth it."

Coggon admitted that the rate of early cancer deaths in the building was unusually high, but he did not agree it was a strange coincidence that three people died from pancreatic cancer after working in the one small corner of the building where Rutherford worked and kept his radioactive materials.

Dr Hugh Wagner died in 2007 of pancreatic cancer aged 62 after working for 20 years in Room 2.62 on the second floor – the room where, in 1908, Rutherford conducted experiments that made substantial use of radon. Directly below that room, right below the floorboards where mercury is still being found, is room 1.54, occupied for many years by Dr John Clark, who died of a brain tumour in 1992, aged 62. And directly below Dr Clark's room, on the ground floor, is room G55, occupied for many years by Dr Arthur Reader, who died a year ago, like Dr Wagner, very quickly of pancreatic cancer, at the age of 69. Before Dr Reader, the room was occupied between 1972 and 1976 by Professor Whiston, who died equally fast of pancreatic cancer in April this year, aged 70.

There are likely to be inquests on Dr Reader and Professor Whiston. An inquest would have been requested on Dr Wagner but he was unfortunately cremated before his relations realised there might be a question over his death. Some other deaths and illnesses have also caused concern, including that of a 56-year-old maintenance technician who worked there for 30 years and has developed thyroid cancer.

"We urged Professor Coggon to contact all the people who worked in the building, but he refused, even though he accepted their evidence could have helped him," says Liz Graham. "He himself says the number of people affected is striking."

Professor Coggon says: "Given the other things that were known, a systemicatic study of cancer and other health outcomes in previous occupants of the building would not have added usefully to the risk assessment."

Professor Coggon's four-point terms of reference, she says, prevented him from examining whether the university had behaved with proper concern for the safety of its employees. But Coggon was happy with his remit, and says that the terms of reference were agreed after wide consultation.

Liz Graham says: "His terms of reference prevent him from answering questions such as: if the university was concerned enough to take measurements, should it not have told the staff of its concern? Should it have allowed people to go on working in a situation which the university, but not the staff, knew might be dangerous? Did the university try to sweep this problem under the carpet?"

Dr Clark's son, Ollie, says: "I was alarmed that the university says no pre-1999 monitoring data is available."

Dr David Beale, speaking for the University and College Union Manchester branch, says: "The university hierarchy has failed to secure the trust of all the staff on health and safety matters, because of its failure to consult fully with staff and their unions and to be open and transparent. The history of the Rutherford affair is a symptom of that."

A university spokesman said that the unions were fully consulted and had every opportunity to influence Coggon's terms of reference.

The history is that what is now the Rutherford Building was used for experiments involving radioactive material long after Rutherford moved on – at least until 1947. The physics department left it in 1970 and the psychology department moved into it in 1972. In the mid-1970s, a confidential university minute suggests that university security staff were showing reluctance to enter it, apparently concerned at the deaths of four colleagues. I have seen a confidential university minute which shows the university was taking radiation measurements at least as early as 1984, but records were not kept.

In 1999 the rooms near to, and above and below, Rutherford's former laboratories were discovered to be heavily contaminated with nuclear materials and with mercury. The staff who worked there did not find out until 2001, and then only by chance, when one of them found on his office door an instruction not to enter and a radiation hazard warning notice. He then noticed mercury on his office ceiling. Radiation hotspots were marked on the carpet, directly below the chair he always used at his desk.

As recently as February this year, Room 2.62 and the room next door to it were again closed and the staff in them temporarily relocated after further deposits of mercury were found in the floorboards.

Manchester's handling of the issue contrasts starkly with that of Cambridge University, which is where Rutherford moved after he left Manchester, before the First World War. The dangers of radiation began to become clear in the wake of the death of Marie Curie in 1934 from leukemia because of her prolonged exposure, and Rutherford's old room in Cambridge was locked and sealed in 1937. In 1946 it was thoroughly cleaned, and materials were removed and disposed of. Measurements were taken in 1976 and 1977, and more contaminated materials taken away.

Whatever the truth at Manchester, Coggon has failed to allay the suspicions of the university's staff. Current staff members chose not to speak on the record, but the recently retired Manchester psychologist Dr Pat Hartley told me: "Why in 1999 did they move us out of our rooms to do remedial work, if they did not have any evidence of serious contamination?"