Rutherford cancer deaths 'coincidence'

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The Independent Online

An independent investigation into the deaths of six workers at the former laboratory of the father of nuclear physics, Ernest Rutherford, has concluded they were unlikely to be linked to radioactive materials used by the Nobel Prize-winning scientist.

Professor David Coggon was brought in by the University of Manchester to investigate health concerns among former staff working in and around the celebrated Room 2.62. He said the potential risk was about the same as that posed by passive smoking, and was among people who had worked for long periods in the most polluted rooms.

Radioactive materials such as radon and polonium were used in the laboratories between 1907 and 1919. The University of Southampton academic said: "Despite some uncertainties about exact levels of contamination in the past, we can be pretty confident that any risks to health have been small, and that the cases of cancer that have occurred among former occupants of the Rutherford Building are not a consequence of the contamination."

An inquiry in 1999 found that radiation remained in four of the Rutherford rooms. The alarm was first raised following a separate report into the deaths of the lecturers Hugh Wagner, 62, who died from pancreatic cancer in 2007, and John Clark, who died in 1993 from a brain tumour.

Following their study, it emerged that four other people who worked in the building had also died of cancer. Computer assistant Vanessa Santos-Leitao, 25, died of a brain tumour in February last year, and lab assistant Moira Joy Howard, who worked in the building as a teenager, died from cancer in 1984, aged 48.

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