Tighter radiation treatment regs called for

Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) has called on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to end its current "treat-and-release" policy for patients who are medically treated with radioisotopes.

"Releasing radioactively 'hot' patients who may expose an unwitting public to potentially dangerous levels of radiation makes absolutely no sense," Markey said in a statement. "Yet that is exactly what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's current policies allow." Markey chairs the Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

In a letter sent to the NRC chairman before two meetings at which radiation treatments would be discussed, Markey called for the NRC to immediately work on revising its 1997 regulations relating to the treatment of patients with radionuclides and to make hospitalization mandatory for patients treated with doses of I-131 above internationally accepted threshold limits.

Markey also called for new regulations to ensure that patients released from the hospital are prohibited from going to hotels or taking taxis or public transportation in the days immediately following treatment. In cases where the patients cannot identify a suitable outpatient facility in which to recover, NRC regulations should mandate in-patient stays, the letter said.

The letter cited findings from a survey of more than 1,000 thyroid cancer survivors' experiences that suggest there's a strong chance that members of the public have unknowingly been exposed to radiation from patients who are discharged after being treated with radioisotopes.

For example, nearly 7 percent of all patients treated with radioactive iodine as outpatients choose to go to a hotel or similar place to recover, where they contaminate sheets, bedspreads, and other common rooms, and could expose pregnant hotel workers or children of guests who are the most susceptible to developing cancer from radiation exposure. About 11 percent of patients never receive any education on how to reduce exposure to pregnant women and children from the radiation they emit.

Hospital officials seemed to think risk of exposure would not be high, according to the Omaha World-Herald. Leo Jablonski, a medical physicist at St. Elizabeth Regional Medical Center in Lincoln, said risk of exposure is low. Even if a woman whose husband had just been treated stayed within 3 feet of him 8 hours a day for three days, he said, she would receive a dose of 340 millirems of radiation. People usually are exposed to 320 millirems a year. But it takes 50,000 millirems to damage a blood cell, he said.

To learn more:
- read the congressman's press release
- here's the letter sent to the NRC
- read the Omaha World-Herald article

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