Skip to main content
NIH Logo NIH Logo

Office of Research Services

Serving the NIH Community


Radioactive Spills and Contamination

​Listed below are specific types of radioactive spills that must immediately ​be reported to the Division of Radiation Safety.  ​


Types of Radioactive Spills​

Examples of spills that require the DRS to be notified are listed below along with initial guidance in the next section, Decontamination Procedures. If unsure of the need to involve the DRS, the area health physicist should be contacted. ​​​​​​​​

  • Personnel contamination of the skin, hair, eye, or clothing that is not disposable​
  • Personnel injury during use of radioactive material
  • Contamination in an unrestricted area, e.g., ANY non-posted location such as modules or rooms outside a posted laboratory, a non-posted hallway, sidewalk, automobile, etc. 
  • Large quantity of activity spilled --> 1mCi
  • Large volume of radioactive liquid --> 1 liter
  • Large contaminated area --> 10 square feet

​For additional emergency information, visit Emergency Contacts.​ For non-emergencies during after-hours, call the NIH Emergency Communications Center​ at (301) 496-5685 to request Radiation Safety​ help for non-emergencies.

Decontamination Procedures 

Skin Contamination 

If skin is found to be contaminated, it is important to note the level of skin contamination using an appropriate survey instrument (e.g., GM or sodium iodide (NaI) detector). Note the highest meter readings measured in counts per minute (cpm) and estimated size of area that is contaminated.  Knowing the initial activity on the skin and changes over time will greatly assist DRS in estimating a skin dose​

Upon discovering contamination, you should:

  • Begin washing the contaminated area with soap and lukewarm water. Repeat as necessary​. 
    • ​Note: Cold water will constrict the pores of your skin making it more difficult to remove the contamination. Hot water may expand the pores of your skin causing the contamination to further penetrate the skin surface.
  • Refrain from using scrubbing utensils to avoid irritating the skin, which may possibly cause the contamination to further penetrate the skin ​
  • Re-survey the contaminated and adjacent skin areas after each washing, taking note of any changes in the measurements 
  • Continue decontamination efforts until contamination is no longer detected, further efforts do not reduce the measurable activity, or the skin becomes irritated.   ​
  • Contact DRS as soon as possible ​​

After the contamination has been removed or further efforts do not reduce the measurable activity, the DRS will perform a dose assessment. 

Clothing Contamination 

If clothing is found to be contaminated, you should:

  • Remove contaminated clothing or shoes immediately upon detection 
  • Monitor the skin beneath the contaminated clothing to evaluate if skin has also been contaminated, and immediately proceed with decontamination efforts as explained in the previous section
  • Place contaminated items in a bag and label with the name of the individual, date, radionuclide, and the count rate measured on the outside of the bag
  • Contact DRS as soon as possible ​​​

Store the bag containing contaminated items in a safe, secure, posted location for about 10 half-lives of the radionuclide. After this time, the items should be monitored while wearing disposable gloves and a lab coat. If any item is found to still be contaminated, it may be placed in the bag for an additional period.  It is recommended that items should be disposed of as radioactive waste if the radionuclide half-life exceeds 30 days. ​

Eye Contamination 

If contamination is found in the eye, you should:

  • Immediately flush eye with water 
  • Report to OMS for medical assessment of the injury
  • ​Contact DRS as soon as possible ​​​​


Significant Lab Contamination on the Floor 

If significant contamination is found on the laboratory floor, you should:

  • Restrict access to the contaminated and local area 
  • Place absorbent paper over the spill 
  • Monitor and mark the boundaries of the area. In addition, the surveyors will monitor themselves and any others, including non-radiation workers who work in the laboratory.  
  • Pay particular attention to monitoring the bottom of shoes and ensure that under no circumstances individuals with contaminated shoes leave the scene
  • Start decontamination efforts from the outer edges and work inward 
  • Use any cleaning agent (i.e., Radiac Wash, Windex, or Alconox)
  • Swipe the area to confirm that no further removable contamination remains 
  • Minimize the amount of liquid that is produced during decontamination to reduce the amount of contaminated waste that is generated

​If contamination is detected with the meter, but a smear survey shows no removable contamination, the contamination is fixed; stop cleaning the area and call the  area health physicist ​ for further assistance. ​



Serious Injuries: (i.e., burns, severe bleeding, heart attack, or suspected stroke)

  • Do not attempt to decontaminate victim 
  • Call the NIH Fire Department at 911. If off campus, dial 9- 911.  Inform emergency personnel upon their arrival that the patient or clothing may be contaminated 
  • Notify DRS as soon as possible ​​​

Minor Injuries: (i.e. puncture wound or cut)

  • Monitor the wound site with a survey meter noting the maximum count rate (cpm). This information will help in any evaluation of skin exposure. 
  • Decontaminate the area with soap and lukewarm water 
  • Report to OMS​​, and advise them that the wound may be contaminated with radioactive material 
  • Notify DRS as soon as possible 

Loss of Radioactive Material 

  • Thoroughly search all freezers and refrigerators, including those not posted for radioactive material use 
  • Verify the source vial was not thrown away in either the radioactive or regular waste, visually and with a survey meter. 
  • Check utilization and disposal records to confirm date of last usage
  • Verify all lab personnel have not used up the material and disposed of the vial 
  • Once the initial search is completed, notify DRS. 


For all after-hours non-emergencies, contact the NIH Emergency Communications Center at (301) 496-5685 and request Radiation Safety help.


Related links