By Ben Geman - 03/19/10 06:55 PM EDT
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is pretty busy these days fielding power company
applications to build new reactors, but Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) issued
a report Thursday that accuses the regulators of botching another
part of their job.
The report from Markey, a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, alleges the NRC is failing to protect the public from exposure to radiation emitted by cancer patients who have been treated with radioactive iodine.
The report says that current NRC rules give medical professionals too much discretion to perform treatments on an outpatient basis. This enables patients to unwittingly expose members of the public to dangerous radiation levels, it finds.
Markey wants the NRC to alter its rules to require patients treated with doses above certain thresholds to remain hospitalized.
He’s also calling for a new NRC determination of whether its current exposure regulations protect children and pregnant women, and better NRC oversight of medical treatment sites and states that regulate them in many cases.
The report notes that the NRC oversees 500 of the 3,700 facilities licensed to perform treatments with radioactive iodine. The rest are overseen by state regulators, and Markey’s report alleges the NRC is failing to check on whether the states are adequately enforcing NRC rules.
“With the release of this report, I call upon the NRC to immediately reverse its actions and stop gambling with public health and safety – and if it won’t, I will introduce legislation that will direct it to do so,” Markey said in a prepared statement. “In the past, the NRC adopted a ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ approach to protecting members of the public from exposure to the radioactive iodine used to treat many cancer patients.”
From the report:
NRC’s weaker, current regulations depend on the ability of medical professionals to assess the living conditions of patients and use the results of this assessment to calculate the likely radiation dose to those people the patient might come into contact with. It is unclear whether such a calculation could be accurately performed for a patient choosing to recover from treatment with radioactive iodine in a hotel, since it would be impossible to characterize every hotel’s layout, or know whether the hotel staff or other hotel guests included vulnerable populations such as pregnant women or children.
Despite reports from individuals and State regulatory authorities that patients are choosing to recover from treatment with radioactive iodine in hotels – thus unwittingly exposing members of the public to radiation –the NRC has consistently refused to ban or limit this practice, and indeed, has never even issued guidance in this area to its licensees. Instead, the NRC actually twice voted to reject NRC staff proposals that would have required reports of dangerous radiation doses delivered to members of the public, through exposure to released patients, to be submitted. One such vote would have only required notification of exposures that are ten times as high as NRC’s own regulatory dose limits for released patients. Rather than addressing or remedying the problem, the NRC instead chose to actively ignore it.
Markey also sent letters to regulators in 34 states asking a series of detailed questions and requesting data about their oversight.