Ethics/Career Question

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KidChem's picture
Ethics/Career Question

I'm a young chemist working on a project to characterize and move drums full of trash from a site in Eastern Idaho to one in New Mexico. I currently work on the process of checking the headspace of sealed trash containers by GC/MS for the presence of flammable volatile organic compounds. We have several instruments with complex autosampler manifolds that are entirely computer-driven with respect to sample introduction, method parameters and data collection. The mass spectral data for each quality control and drum sample is evaluated for validity and accuracy by one chemist (at least a year of spectral interpretation experience) before the data (only the contaminant concentrations) is reported in a sophisticated computerized waste tracking and information system (think bar code scanners and a gigantic database). The database is then checked against the spectral reports by a second independent chemist to ensure that no errors were made by the automatic import script and to ensure that all QC requirements were met. The raw output (mass spectra and reports) from the instruments is stored in pdf printouts on secure servers.

The problem that I have is that due to modifications to the acceptance criteria of the site in New Mexico, the requirements for our process have been relaxed. We are being forced to divorce our GC/MS instruments from our waste drum tracking system and autosamplers and will no longer be running any control samples (blanks, traceable standards, etc.) along with our batches of drum samples. The data collection and reporting will be by pen and paper. The spectral data will be deleted soon after collection.

I feel that the lack of QC in this "new" process basically invalidates the results thereof. It also seems to me that deletion of the actual spectral data is a practice that one would only perform if one knew that said data may one day be called into question. The fact that a paper-based tracking and reporting system will be used is a huge error precursor in my mind as the project moves tens of thousands of the drums on any given day. Do those of you with more chemistry or general scientific experience than I have feel that my concerns are justified? I am considering quitting this job because I will be required to sign my name to the drum reports and am a bit worried about liability were something to go wrong.

Oh, did I mention that the trash in question is by definition radioactive hazardous waste that is being shipped down the nation's highways? Here's the map. All of the other similar sites in the country must follow an identical procedure to our "new" one if they don't already.

I would appreciate any feedback that you all could provide.

Omai's picture
Tough question.

Tough question.

Here is a link to the USNRC and their waste policies.

As far as liability issues, I would get a consult from a lawyer that specializes in bioethics/biotech issues. They would have the most current information.

In general, if your job conflicts with your ethics, than maybe its time to change jobs. Especially in science, where unethical jobs present themselves more often.

A larger issue is why the law was changed to make the regulation of waste disposal more lax, and who put this law into effect? I find it disturbing in this age of "green" technology that we are moving backwards in terms of radioactive waste monitoring and disposal. Was this a federal decision? Who voted for it? In the current political climate, these answers may help to reveal a candidates true views on science and the environment.

Any other thoughts would be appreciated.