Four cancer deaths at university 'may be linked to radioactive experiments'

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Three academics and a computer assistant have died after working in the same building.

The one-time laboratory at Manchester University was used by Ernest Rutherford at the turn of the last century.

He is known to have begun a series of experiments using radioactive material in 1906.

Officials from the Health and Safety Executive have now ordered a review to determine whether former lecturers, students and ancillary staff were contaminated by traces of radon and polonium left in the building.

All four of those whose deaths are under review worked in the university's psychology department, which moved into the old physics department in 1972.

Dr Arthur Reader, 69, died from pancreatic cancer last week. Shortly before his death his wife, Grace, said his illness appeared to be "more than a coincidence."

In February this year Vanessa Santos-Leitao, 25, a computer assistant who worked in the building from 2006, died of a brain tumour.

Dr Hugh Wagner, a psychologist, died last year of pancreatic cancer. He was 62 and had spent two decades working in room 2.62 of the Rutherford Building.

It was in this room in 1908 that Rutherford, assisted by a colleague, Thomas Royds, carried out experiments using radon.

The Rutherford Building is also known to have contained quantities of polonium, the substance which killed Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian dissident, in November 2006.

One of Dr Wagner's colleagues, Dr John Clark, worked in the room directly below 2.62. He died of a brain tumour in 1992 after taking early retirement.

Concern about the Rutherford Building first emerged in June when three of the university's psychologists published the findings of a private investigation in June.

Although they were unable to establish any direct evidence to link the deaths of their colleagues to radioactive contamination, university officials have confirmed that the Rutherford Building was the subject of a precautionary decontamination exercise in 1999.

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