Unregulated markets, outdated safety protocols key in over-radiation cases

Despite all of the benefits new radiological equipment can bring to diagnosing and fighting diseases, updated technology also can lead to catastrophic results if it goes unmonitored, a disturbing report in the New York Times concludes. 

In one instance in 2005, patient Landreaux Donaldson received 38 consecutive overdoses of radiation while undergoing prostate cancer treatment at Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center in Baton Rouge, La., due to a miscalculation punched into a new linear accelerator. The radiation exposure led to "stomach ulcers, anemia and urethral stricture," all of which required surgery and hyperbaric oxygen treatments. Donaldson filed a lawsuit, which has been settled. 

More recently, between February 2008 and August 2009, 206 patients at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles who underwent CT scans to detect strokes were over-radiated to the point where many of the patients started losing hair. Although the overdoses were displayed on computer screens, technicians running the machines did not notice, according to the Times. The incidents led to a class-action lawsuit.

Part of the problem stems from the unregulated marketplace for such devices. For example, some devices often are sold before all of the kinks can be worked out, said Eric Klein, a medical physicist and professor of radiation oncology at Washington University in St. Louis.

"Vendors are selling to anyone," Klein said. "New technologies were coming into the clinics without people thinking through from Step 1 to Step 112 to make sure everything is going to be done right." 

Outdated safety protocols also are to blame, believes Jeffrey Williamson, a professor of radiation oncology with Massey Cancer Center at Virginia Commonwealth University. 

"Science societies haven't been able to keep up with the rapid pace of technical improvements," Williams said. 

For more information:
- read this New York Times piece