Rutherford inquiry met by scepticism
Photo: Girish Gupta

Rutherford inquiry met by scepticism

| Oct. 5, 2009 |

Published by Student Direct: Mancunion

Photo: Girish Gupta

AFTER YEARS of anxious waiting, an inquiry into six deaths of former staff ended last week, only to be met by scepticism due to a lack of record-keeping by the University of Manchester.

Independent investigator Professor David Coggon reported his findings on the deaths that have afflicted former occupants of the rooms in which Ernest Rutherford worked in the early part of last century. The Southampton-based professor spoke to roughly 100 audience members over a two-hour presentation last Wednesday.

Renowned physicist Ernest Rutherford worked on many groundbreaking experiments on radioactive substances in the University of Manchester’s Rutherford Building. An investigation was commissioned after reports of the deaths, caused by pancreatic and brain cancer.

“I think we can be pretty confident that any risks to health have been small,” said Coggon, “and that the cases of cancer that have occurred among former occupants of the Rutherford Building are not a consequence of the contamination.”

However, scepticism surrounds the report due to the lack of any surviving record of surveys into radiation levels in the building that were conducted by the University of Manchester in the seventies and eighties.

Despite thinking it “unusual”, Coggon failed to find a significant link between the radiation and mercury levels detected in and around the building and the deaths. “By far the most likely explanation for the cluster [of deaths] is that it has occurred by chance coincidence,” he said.

Following Coggon’s report, Dr Kelly Jones of the Health Protection Agency spoke to the auditorium. She was interrupted by an audience member inquiring: “Why is there no monitoring data available before 1999?”

Coggon weighed in from the audience suggesting that back then people were less safety conscious. Speaking to Student Direct: Mancunion in February, Coggon had said: “It is not surprising that records were destroyed if they showed nothing untoward.”

Philippa Browning, Professor in Astrophysics at the University of Manchester as well as a former member of the University Senate, voiced her concern to Student Direct: Mancunion on a number of issues. “As I understand it, the link between pancreatic cancer and radiation is not very well understood,” she began.

“Also of concern is the loss of files,” Browning added focusing on the lack of pre-1999 data available for Coggon to work with. “How far does it go before it stops being a coincidence?”

Photo: Girish Gupta

In a press conference, Student Direct: Mancunion asked as to whether or not Coggon agreed with the words of Drs Neil Todd, Don O’Boyle and John Churcher, who reported in August 2008, “The existence of … uncertainties is in part due to the absence of a proactive attitude of the University towards certain possible risks to its staff, and a casual approach to record keeping.” The professor refused to “cast aspersions” and gave no comment.

Speaking after the press conference, Dr Pat Hartley, a retired Psychology lecturer once based in the building, said: “I’m not happy with [the report]… I didn’t know anything about the contamination at all.”

She described Coggon as “dismissive” in response to her question about pre-1999 records. “If it’s not his remit, it should be somebody else’s,” said Hartley.

“Six people have died and have left family members obviously distressed. It’s bad enough to lose somebody, but to lose somebody when you think it could’ve been avoided, is difficult.”

The University and College Union, a trade union for lecturers, expressed concern too: “[University] management has failed to keep or preserve proper records and failed to engage with the staff unions. It is essential that staff and their representatives are allowed to play a leading role in developing health and safety practices at the university in the future.”

Browning revealed that the subject is certainly a talking point among University of Manchester staff. However, many were unwilling to talk to the press. The University of Manchester declined to give any further comment.

The presentation was attended by past and present members of staff, students as well as bereaved family members. One audience member asked whether it was cancer that had killed Rutherford himself. “No, it was a strangulating hernia,” replied Coggon.