Hazardous materials

Ethics case studies
Dilemma:

A museum has had a display of rocks and minerals in their natural history gallery for the last 20 years. During that time the once well-staffed museum has lost most of its specialist curators and has not been able to afford any funds for a redisplay (though the natural history gallery is one of the most popular in the museum).

A group of secondary school science students with their teacher have been on a visit using the museum to test the impact of atmospheric and other pollution with a variety of sampling and measuring equipment.

They have brought a Geiger counter with them and in the natural history gallery it suddenly registers high levels of radioactivity in the vicinity of the rocks and minerals display. The teacher is very concerned at what radioactivity the pupils might have been exposed to and also the families and children using this popular gallery.

The director decides to close the gallery to the public until the rocks and minerals have been removed to store, but has decided to call the temporary closure maintenance and wants no hint of the radioactive issue to reach the press.

The collections team have been tasked with moving the rocks and minerals, however union members have now raised concerns at exposure levels to staff and the team feel that they need to be up front about the issue to both the staff and public and set out how it is being dealt with. They contact the ethics committee for advice.

Response:


The museum should have had appropriate standards of care in place, and appropriate expertise to ensure that no one is put at risk from contact with hazardous substances in the collection.

This includes handover and legacy planning when specialist curatorial staff leave the museum. Museums should keep a clear record of items containing hazardous substances and be aware of their responsibilities under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations.

In this case, the museum may have made an error in putting the radioactive material on display. The first priority in this situation is to remove the specimens to appropriate storage and to clearly to determine if staff or visitors have been put at risk.

This should be done thoroughly with reference to guidance and with expert advice. It may be useful in this situation to consult with Natsca, whose members have experience of dealing with hazardous substances.

The ethical dilemma in this situation is, however, about the degree of transparency that is required of the museum in its handling of the situation. On the one hand, the museum wants to protect its reputation and avoid unwanted public scrutiny. On the other hand, there is undoubtedly a public interest in an issue that may involve a risk to public health.

A sensible approach in this situation, and one that is underpinned by the Code of Ethics’ requirement for institutional integrity, is to be transparent without seeking to generate unnecessary concern.

In the first instance, the museum management needs to communicate the known risks to staff and to the teacher involved, and to inform public health officials of a potential risk (reporting an incident such as this to HSE may be a legal requirement under HSE RIDDOR legislation). Any further action will depend on the advice of experts as to the actual impact of the radioactive material.

If required to publicise risks further, it is worth distinguishing between the objective risk of the situation as calculated by experts based on research, and the subjective risk as the public perceives the situation. This situation requires honest, transparent and clear communication and willingness to engage with public concerns about the issue.

Links and downloads

Code of Ethics

Control of Substances Hazardous to Health regulations


SHARE South East: hazards in museum collections

Natural Sciences Collections Association

Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013

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