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Medicine: Dump Slump

3 minute read

It hurts nuclear medicine

What does a hospital have in common with a nuclear power plant?

Radioactive waste and the need for a place to dump it. Thus when Washington Governor Dixy Lee Ray early this month shut down her state’s Hanford dump, one of the three— such sites available to U.S. producers of low-level radioactive wastes, there was immediate concern in the nuclear medicine departments of hospitals and research centers across the U.S. Some nuclear power plants can use on-site storage areas for radioactive wastes. But hospitals and universities with limited storage capacity rely on regular pickups by private carters. For them, a wide array of vital tests may now be jeopardized.

Radioactive materials are essential tools in modern medicine. A radioactive form, or isotope, of cobalt is used in treatment of cancer. Radioactive isotopes of other elements are employed as tracers that enable doctors to follow the paths of substances through the body. For example, iodine 131, given orally or intravenously, is accumulated by the thyroid, which uses iodine to produce hormones. An imaging device detects the gamma rays given off by the isotope and translates them into dots that appear oij a TV screen. Result: help in diagnosing such disorders as hyperthyroidism and cancer.

Each of these tracers produces only a low level of radiation and has a short “half-life” (the time in which it loses half of its remaining radioactivity). Technetium 99m, a common isotope used especially for detecting brain tumors, has one of only six hours, while fluorine 18, used in bone scans, is half decayed in less than two hours. Of greater concern are the isotopes used in laboratory tests. Among them: carbon 14, with a half-life of 5,750 years. A large hospital may conduct thousands of radioactive tests and procedures daily, including those with carbon 14, and produce enough waste to fill several dozen 30-gal. drums every week. But few hospitals are equipped to store this waste for long.

Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston has warned physicians not to order any radioactive diagnostic tests that can be delayed. At the Duke University Medical Center, Associate Professor of Radiology William Briner warns, “We are on a three-week countdown on the use of radioactive materials.” Harvard University and the University of Washington in Seattle, which use the isotopes for bio-medical research, have curtailed some projects. Declares James Summers, a radiation safety officer at Manhattan’s Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center: “If we can’t get rid of the stuff, we’re going to have to cut back on research and testing; we can’t just fill up the basement.”

Some relief may come early next month. The Governors of the three states with existing dump sites are scheduled to meet with Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials, and adoption of a stricter dumping code may persuade them to keep their facilities open. But one recently released study projects that by 2000 as much as 7.8 million cubic meters of low-level waste will be stockpiled in the U.S. In time, other states will almost certainly have to share the burden by setting up their own sites or finding alternate methods of disposal. Says one Department of Transportation official: “Hanford may be a blessing in disguise. Maybe we’ll all sit down now and find a long-term solution to the problem.”

* The Beatty, Nev., dump, which like Hanford was shut down temporarily in July because of unsafe shipping procedures, may be closed permanently next month. The Barnwell, S.C., site has banned all liquid wastes, but still accepts solids.

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