Page last updated at 13:54 GMT, Wednesday, 30 September 2009 14:54 UK

'No atomic link' in cancer deaths

University of Manchester Rutherford Building
Six people who worked in the building have died from cancer

The deaths of six people who worked in a University of Manchester building at the centre of a contamination probe were "coincidence", a report has found.

All six had worked in the Rutherford Building, where scientists carried out experiments on atomic structure at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Concerns were raised the deaths could have been caused by contamination from radioactive materials or mercury.

An inquiry by Professor David Coggon found no link between the deaths.

The University of Southampton professor said: "Despite some uncertainties, about exact levels of contamination in the past I think 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."

Radioactive materials such as radon and polonium, as well as substantial amounts of metallic mercury, were used between 1907 and 1919.

Rutherford building plaque

An inquiry in 1999 found that radiation remained in four Rutherford rooms, including room 2.62 which was used by the Nobel Prize winning scientist himself.

Concerns were first raised following a separate report into the deaths of lecturers Hugh Wagner, 62, and John Clark, who worked in the building.

Dr Wagner died from pancreatic cancer in 2007 after working in room 2.62 for a number of years, while Dr Clark, who occupied the room directly below it, died in 1993 from a brain tumour.

After the study it emerged four other people who worked in the Rutherford Building had died of cancer.

Arthur Reader, 69, of Fallowfield, Manchester, who worked in the psychology department from 1969 to 1993, died from pancreatic cancer in September 2008.

His former colleague Professor Tom Whiston, 70, an honorary professor at the University of Sussex, also died of pancreatic cancer in April this year.

By far the most likely explanation for the cluster is that it has occurred by chance coincidence
Professor Coggan

Computer assistant Vanessa Santos-Leitao, 25, died of a brain tumour in February and lab assistant Moira Joy Howard died from cancer in 1984, aged 48.

In his report, the professor said the largest potential health risk from contamination by radioactive chemicals would be lung cancer.

However, this would be for people who had worked for long periods in the most polluted rooms in the building and would still be relatively small, posing as much risk as passive smoking.

"An apparent cluster, at least three cases, of pancreatic cancer among past occupants of the Rutherford Building cannot plausibly be explained by contaminant radioactive chemicals, mercury or asbestos, either alone or in combination," he added.

"By far the most likely explanation for the cluster is that it has occurred by chance coincidence."

The report concluded that there was no need for any health screening for people who may have been exposed to hazardous contaminants in the buildings.

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