Spills & Incidents

Is It an Emergency If It Involves Radioactive Materials?

Problems involving radioactive materials, such as spills or personal contamination, do not typically create emergencies. Generally such incidents can be readily handled with laboratory or other University resources instead of calling non-University emergency responders.  A situation involving radioactive materials is only an emergency if it also involves fire, explosion or serious injury.

Who To Call

For skin or clothing contamination or major spills or EHS advice

  1. During normal working hours, call EHS at 8-5294
  2. Outside normal working hours, call EHS at 8-5294. You will hear a menu directing you to either leave a message or speak to a safety officer directly. Note: The immediate contact option should be used for radioactive materials incidents only. 

For an emergency
Remember that an emergency only exists if there’s fire, explosion or the risk of serious injury.

  1. Call Public Safety first by dialing 911.
  2. During normal working hours, also call EHS at 8-5294
  3. Also contact any Laboratory or Departmental Emergency contacts listed on the Emergency Information poster found on or near the entrance to the laboratory.

What To Do

Skin Contamination

  1. Call EHS immediately. EHS must be notified any time contamination is found on your skin, even if you’re able to completely decontaminate your skin. The RSO will respond to any incident of skin contamination, no matter what time the incident has occurred.
  2. Make a note of the original meter reading so that the Radiation Safety Officer can estimate the radiation dose to your skin.
  3. Wash your skin gently under room-temperature water for about 2 minutes, using gentle soap or detergent. Do not use abrasives or alkaline soaps.
  4. Resurvey your skin to see if the contamination has been removed.

Contamination on Any Clothing Other than Lab Coats

Call EHS immediately. EHS must be notified any time contamination is found on your clothing. The RSO will respond to any incident of clothing contamination, no matter what time the incident has occurred.

Lab Coat Contamination

  • Call EHS if you are concerned that contamination may have soaked through the fabric of the lab coat or if the count rate is unusually high.
  • For short-lived isotopes (P-32, P-33, S-35, I-125):
    • Mark the location of the contamination.
    • Place the coat in a plastic bag and securely close it.
    • Label the bag with the current date, the isotope and the count rate. Put Caution Radioactive Material labeling on the bag.
  • For long-lived isotopes (H-3, C-14), consult with the RSO to decide whether to attempt to decontaminate the coat or to dispose of it.

Spills and Contamination of Surfaces

We define two types of contamination incidents, either a minor spill or a major spill. There will be many incidents that don’t obviously fall into one category or the other. Call EHS if you are uncertain whether your incident is a Minor Spill.

A Minor Spill is any incident that involves all of the following criteria:

  • Less than 10 µCi of radioactivity has been spilled.
  • Contamination is limited to a small area of no more than 2-3 square feet.
  • There is no clothing or skin contamination.
  • You are certain that you can manage the surveys and decontamination on your own without assistance.

Handling a Minor Spill

Minor Spill or Contamination

Spill Decontamination Procedure

Supplies: a lab coat, sturdy disposable gloves, shoe covers (if appropriate), paper towels, decon solution, a rad waste container, and a survey meter.

Decon Solution:  For most isotopes (H-3, C-14, P-32, P-33, S-35, etc.), lab detergent, commercial products such as Count-Off, or mild acids such as acetic acid, may be used as decon solutions.  For I-125 contamination, do not use hot water, acids or acidic detergents, because volatile iodine may be produced.  A basic decon solution such as Count-Off or Dekasol may be used.

  1. Get supplies ready before cleanup.
  2. Use a survey meter or a wipe survey to carefully define the extent of the contaminated area.
  3. Mark the contaminated area with tape or other marking.
  4. Start the clean-up at the edge of the contaminated area and work inward.
  5. Clean wet spills or contamination using absorbent paper towels.
  6. Change paper towels frequently to avoid smearing contamination around.
  7. Change gloves frequently and watch out for rips and tears.
  8. Survey all personnel involved in the clean-up.  survey shoes as wella s hands and lab coats.
  9. Record the clean-up and personnel surveys in the lab survey log.
  10. Call EHS for assistance and information.

Dealing with a Major Spill

A Major Spill is any incident that is not a Minor Spill and includes the discovery of contamination in unexpected places or in many places.  As you read through these steps, keep in mind that EHS responders will arrive soon to help manage the situation.

  1. Notification:  Notify everyone in the lab or possibly in the vicinity of the lab, if it seems warranted.  Ask someone to immediately call EHS or Public Safety (see Who To Call).
  2. Personnel Protection: Assess your own condition and determine whether you need to decontaminate yourself or to remove contaminated clothing.
  3. Control Access & Limit the Spread of Contamination:  Block off the area so that bystanders don't enter.  Assemble people who were in the lab at the time of the incident in a place near enough to the contaminated area to minimize the spread of contamination but far enough away to prevent the continued spread of contamination.
  4. Decontamination:  The effort to decontaminate the area is the responsibility of the Authorized User and lab staff, although EHS will plan the effort and will assist you with the clean-up.

Missing Radioactive Materials

The loss or theft of radioactive materials must be reported to EHS immediately.  If you have discovered that a vial of radioactive material is missing or can't be accounted for, take a few minutes to try to locate it, but notify EHS before the end of the business day.  EHS is required to notify the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection when a quantity of radioactive material is missing that exceeds the reportable limits.


Colt Greer
Assistant Director and RSO

Chelsea McDonnell
Health and Safety Technician