HealthWatch: Radioactive Medicine Exposure Concerns Feds

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) – It’s a virtual cure for a potentially fatal disease. But an investigation by the federal government found it could put others at risk.

Gretchen Wyman is the mother of two boys, ages 12 and 13. Nagi the cat is an indoor cat and has been all 13 years of his life.

Both were diagnosed with a thyroid disease: Gretchen with thyroid cancer; Nagi with hyperthyroidism. And both were treated with the same powerful medicine.

Wyman said the medicine was “Almost 100 percent effective.”

Deirdre Fujimoto, who owns Nagi, exclaimed that she knew her cat had a good chance of a cure.

The treatment however is radioactive. It’s called I-131 and the medicine is kept in lead-lined boxes and tungsten canisters.

After treatment, pets and patients are radioactive for several days.

UCSF endocrinologist Dr. Kenneth Woeber said that, “the public in general needs to be protected from unnecessary exposure.”

Veterinarian Heidi McClain of Radiocat explained that by federal law, without exception, that “the cats are quarantined for 3 days, at least 72 hours.”

But since 1997, patients in the U.S. are no longer quarantined. Most are sent home and treated as outpatients.

Fujimoto found that odd, saying, “It seems strange to me that cats would have these restrictions but the humans would not.”

Woeber said if patients follow certain safety precautions, they don’t pose a threat. That includes avoiding small children and pregnant women for several days.

In addition, Woeber said emphatically, “Patients should not be permitted. Must not, should not, but must not go to a hotel, motel, timeshare.”

That’s because patients excrete radiation in bodily fluids, which can contaminate bed sheets, towels, bathrooms, even floors. It could expose hotel guests and staff – -especially those who clean rooms – to unwanted radiation.

Despite these precautions, a Congressional investigation found some patients are choosing to recover in hotels to avoid exposing loved ones at home. And that’s now caught the attention of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
On January 25th, a new advisory from the NRC “strongly discourages” patients from going to any location other than a private residence.

On Monday, the commission issued a broad release, to make clear that they don’t want patients to go to hotels or other similar locations; that patients really need to go a private residence or to their own home.

Even so, doctors and patients do not have to follow it. In fact, a recently released survey shows 14 percent of doctors actually recommend their patients stay in hotels.

Peter Crane, a former attorney with the NRC said, “It’s very troubling. It tells us that doctors who should know better are disregarding it.”

Crane is also a thyroid cancer patient. He would like to see patients quarantined again until they are safe to go home.

As for Wyman, UCSF specialists questioned her extensively about her home and family before they would even give her the radioactive drug. She sent her kids to stay with a friend for three days. While her husband stayed on the ground floor, she stayed on the upper floor.

“I relegated myself to the upper floor and the upper bedroom until I knew it was safe to come out”, she said.

But for those patients who check into hotels, or the doctors who advise the same, that’s a choice that not taken by all, especially those who clean hotel rooms.

(© 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)


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