NOVEMBER 30, 2009: NRC ABANDONING RESPONSIBILITY TO PROTECT ON UNWITTING RADIOACTIVE EXPOSURES

NRC Response to Lawmaker on Radioisotopes Raises Concerns

 WASHINGTON, D.C. –Representative Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Chairman of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee, today expressed concern that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is failing to take sufficient action to protect patients treated with radioisotopes and those who may be exposed to them following medical treatment.  Under current NRC rules, patients treated with such materials whose bodies are emitting high levels of radiation can be sent home, even if they have small children at home. Patients can also be sent to hotels for recovery, even though hotel workers and others that come into contact with them may be unwittingly exposed.

The Commission has abdicated its responsibility to ensure public health and safety by stating they have no intention of changing their guidance regarding the conditions under which patients treated with radioactive materials should be kept away from people who should not be exposed to them,” said Markey.

This is a particular concern for children and pregnant women. In their response, the NRC provides no health-based rationale as to why it is acceptable for the U.S. to have radiation standards for children and pregnant women that are five times less protective than those in place in the European Union.  I will continue to work to ensure that the NRC performs its role as a public health and safety regulator.” 

Chairman Markey’s concerns came in response to statements made by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in a letter from NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko. Jaczko’s letter responded to an October 13 letter Chairman Markey sent the NRC regarding the safety considerations associated with patients treated with radioisotopes.  In that letter, Chairman Markey wrote to the NRC expressing concerns over rules that govern the treatment of patients with radioisotopes, which allow for much higher levels of public exposure to radioactive materials than those adopted by other countries, including the European Union.

 
The NRC’s response to Markey’s inquiry states that the “NRC does not consider the US regulations to be less protective of public health than the European Union” and indicated that it believes the public is adequately protected, provided that “adequate instructions are given at discharge to patients and family members.” 

However, the Commission’s response abdicates its own responsibility to the public, choosing instead to base its belief that the standards are sufficiently protective on the assumption that patients are being provided with adequate guidance by their physicians.  As was clearly indicated in a petition to the Commission which described the case of a woman with small children who was sent home following treatment via public transportation, the assumption that physicians are clearly communicating risks to their patients before discharging them is flawed. 
 

In its response, the NRC also states that it “believes that the dose from contamination is low” and allows the physician the primary authority for evaluating that conditions are met for hotel discharge.

 
In response, Bill Borwegen Director of Occupational Health and Safety at SEIU stated:

“It is clear that further environmental testing of possible radiation contamination of hotel rooms, including of the linens and bathrooms, is needed before the NRC can responsibly conclude that radiation contamination from these patients does not pose an unnecessary health risk to hotel workers and their guests.” 

Gary Bloom, Executive Director of ThyCa, the Thyroid Cancer Survivors' Association, explained the need for more to be done to inform patients and their families of the risks, noting that:  “ThyCa wants all patients to be able to make informed decisions about radioactive iodine dosing, by having a discussion with their physician, using a standardized questionnaire, written at a 6th grade level (with alternative formats for people with special needs), as well as verbal instructions and verification of understanding. This will make it easier for all patients receiving a dose of radioactive iodine to understand the issues, and the decision to be made regarding release or isolation after receiving radioactive iodine.”

Chairman Markey concluded, “I’m not satisfied with the Commission’s response, and I plan to continue to pursue this matter.

 
A copy of the correspondence between Chairman Markey and the NRC on this matter can be found here:

http://markey.house.gov/docs/nrcltomarkeyisotopes.pdf