Cobalt 60 and the chem deptt of DU

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    We have been listening/reading about the accident in Mayapuri, Delhi in which at least two labourers have lost life because of radiation exposure. A few days back it was told that the radiation source was Cobalt 60, which found its way to the scrap dealer’s shop. Initially, it was surmised that the scrap might have been imported, but yesterday it was reported that its source was University of Delhi’s Department of Chemistry,

    I was indeed intrigued, because i know no one in the deptt who does research in Radiation Chemistry. So, i did a bit of Net research. Within a few minutes, i could guess the name of The Faculty member! It is Professor B. K. Sharma, who was a faculty member in Chem Department, some forty years ago, when i had joined as an undergraduate student. I could trace out a research paper published in 1985 with a coworker from Bareilly.

    So, how did the radiation source find its way to the scrap market? Obviously Professor Sharma must have retired long ago (possibly he might have passed away too!). So the equipment he procured at that time, must have been lying discarde in some attic of the department all these years. Off late, there has been a drive to clean up to vacate some useful working space in the University. The protocol for that, i have come to know recently, is to appoint a committee of Faculty members to review the nature of the items to be disposed off and the manner to be used. In the present case, i won’t be very surprised if no committee member cared to look through the stock register carefully, or if they did cared to find out the likely environmental threat, if an equipment like a Gamma Irradiator (which has Cobalt 60 in it) found its way to the scrap market, because not every chemistry faculty member can be expected to know about each such equipment. So, the procedure must have been followed in a routine manner.

    Now that a serious accident has happened, what corrective steps the University authorities can take?

    I have a few suggestions:

    1. The potential risks for all research equipment being procured by the University must be documented at the time of its procurement, so that whenever it needs to be disposed off, the people involved can at least be aware of them.

    2. Whenever a faculty member retires, he must be required to submit a report about each and every equipment procured by him for his laboratory, with a word of caution!!



    From the news reports published today in newspapers it appears that it is not an isolated incident. Many science departments have been adopting a callous approach towards discarding nuclear waste. That calls for serius concern. All faculty members conducting any research activity using hazardous material should be required to give an undertaking that they would take all care for the disposal of waste, whether it we radioactive material or environmentally hazardous chemical substances. If the University does not initiate such steps it would become totally socially irresponsible



    The University must learn a lesson from this tragic incident, if it wants its name in annals to go down as a socially responsible university.

    Faculty members of various science departments choose the subject of their research activity, based on the fashion of the day; that gives them more opportunities for career advancement through frequent jaunts to western countries. It would be rare if any of them would be concerned about the environmental impact of their research activity. I remember that during by Ph.D. research work at IITK i used to dump into the drain many liters of methanol/chloroform almost daily for many months. I never cared for the impact of these toxic chemicals whether on the environment or my health. Similarly I have lately witnessed how we trash a number of computers that may not be very old, and hence still usable, only because we can get grants for purchasing brand new models. An activity that generates a lots of e-waste, about which no one is concerned a bit. Can’t these computers be recycled? Can’t some people from the academic community think of some innovative ideas that would minimize such waste?

    Definitely there is a need to give some serious thought on these issues within the science community of the University

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