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Boston science lab burns, spewing radioactive agents

As reported by Michael Levenson; Boston Globe Correspondent
March 28, 2005

An early morning fire gutted the fifth floor of a life sciences laboratory in Boston, spewing radioactive isotopes onto firefighters who entered the building, but apparently not releasing any hazardous materials into the surrounding area, authorities said.

"They're doing an assessment, but the belief so far has been no major release of any sort that could impact the public," said John Shea, director of environmental hazards for the Boston Public Health Commission, who was on the scene yesterday.

The two-alarm fire broke out at about 4:15 a.m. at the PerkinElmer Life and Analytical Sciences Inc. laboratory at 575 Albany St. in Boston, filling the top floor with heavy smoke and flames, firefighters said. No one was in the building at the time, and firefighters said the cause of the blaze is under investigation.

The lab, one of two buildings PerkinElmer owns on Albany Street, had several radioactive reagents, which the firm sells to pharmaceutical companies and academic research institutions, said Dan Sutherby, a spokesman for the multinational firm.

Collectively, he said, the radioactive material amounted to about nine fingernails' worth of substance, and, if burned, would have released only carbon dioxide into the air, he said. "We're not concerned, even if it all burned, which is good," Sutherby said. "There was a miniscule amount of inventory up there, which is great."

Officials were not taking any chances. As firefighters left the building, agents from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health's Nuclear Incident Advisory Team swept them with beeping Geiger counters, and firefighters then hosed them down slowly. About 25 firefighters tested positive for some amount of radioactive materials, said Fire Lieutenant David M. Pfeil, but were not expected to experience health problems. One firefighter was treated at New England Medical Center for smoke inhalation and particles in her eyes, Pfeil said. The firefighters' gear was also removed and taken for testing, he said, leaving the firefighters exposed to the cold.

"You had a bunch of cold firefighters scrambling back to the firehouse," Pfeil said outside the scene yesterday.

The lab was visibly damaged, its windows burned and smashed, the interior blackened, and the roof torn open. When the first firefighters entered the lab and spotted a hazardous materials sign on a door, they decided to leave the building quickly and fight the blaze from the street below, Pfeil said. Firefighters also requested backup, he said. They poured water onto the blaze, dousing the fire and possibly damaging the floors below, he said.

The fire also activated the lab's own sprinkler and alarm system, he said, which alerted the Fire Department.

Councilor Stephen J. Murphy said yesterday he had proposed an ordinance that would increase inspections of the city's approximately 5,000 scientific laboratories, and provide the Fire Department with information about the chemicals stored at each one. "It doesn't stop the fire from happening, but it takes the blindfold off the emergency personnel," Murphy said.

PerkinElmer, based in Wellesley, operates in 125 countries with about $1.5 billion in revenue in 2003 and 10,000 employees, according to the company's website. Among a range of products, the firm produces chemical instruments, digital sensors, and fluid systems for turbine engines.