Hospitals piling up nuclear waste

Hospitals go through radioactive material--a lot of it, in fact--but industry leaders seldom pay much attention to the problem. Generators of such material include radioactive cesium isotopes and cobalt-60 pellets used to irradiate cancerous cells, and powdered cesium and cobalt for use inside machines that irradiate medical equipment and blood to sterilize it. Officials say that they fear the lost nuclear material could be used in a terrorist attack such as the making of a "dirty bomb."

The problem has gotten worse since a rural South Carolina landfill stopped accepting low-level waste in compliance with state law, leaving 36 states with no place to send their material. Since then, universities and hospitals have been storing growing amounts of the material on their campuses, as their states typically don't have appropriate disposal points.

As with any other form of nuclear material, the waste is being monitored, but research by the Associated Press suggests that many small radioactive items have already been lost. In the past 10 years, 4,363 radioactive sources have been lost, stolen or abandoned, including those from hospitals. For example, 19 vials of cesium-137, which is implanted for cervical cancer treatments disappeared in 1998 from a locked safe at Moses Cone Memorial Hospital in Greensboro, N.C.

To learn more about this problem:
- read this Associated Press piece