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Ex-UCI Lab Worker Accused of Exposing Peer to Radiation

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a case of an office rift that apparently escalated into chemical warfare, a former UCI lab technician was arrested Thursday and charged with assault with a deadly weapon after he smeared radioactive material on a co-worker’s chair, the Orange County district attorney’s office said.

Andrew Andris Blakis, 32, of Los Angeles also was charged with unlawful disposal of radioactive material.

Authorities said Blakis believed a colleague at UCI’s Gillespie Neuroscience Research Facility had contaminated him with P32 isotope, a waxy, colorless substance used to test DNA.

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On July 1, Blakis was conducting tests using the material when he felt a tingling in his lips, district attorney’s spokeswoman Tori Richards said. Using a Geiger counter, Blakis detected radioactive material that had escaped at his workstation.

He then spread P32 on the chair of co-worker Jingtong Zuo in retaliation, Richards said. Zuo unwittingly sat in the chair for a day and a half until a routine safety check discovered the contamination.

There was no evidence that Zuo had contaminated Blakis, Richards said.

If convicted, Blakis faces a maximum of five years and eight months in state prison. Richards said this may be first case of its kind in California.

Zuo, a postgraduate researcher at the university, could not be reached for comment Thursday. She is not experiencing any symptoms of radiation poisoning, Richards said, but the possibility of long-term effects is not clear.

“She’s very distraught over this entire incident,” Richards said.

Sandra Lier, a university associate vice chancellor, said Zuo is back at work.

“We hope she will continue to be well,” Lier said. “We will certainly keep supporting her.”

UCI hired Blakis in October; he resigned July 8, shortly after the incident, Lier said.

Radioactive contamination is extremely rare at UCI labs, she said.

“We have extensive safety procedures in place,” she said. “And I can say that this one individual violated those procedures.”

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She would not comment further on whether Blakis and Zuo, who began working at the lab in March, had had personal or professional disputes.

She said P32 is generally considered low-radiation material, but officials were concerned nonetheless because the contamination appeared to be intentional.

Blakis was being held Thursday at Orange County Men’s Central Jail with bail set at $25,000.

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