Can a Stranger's Cancer Therapy Put Your Health At Risk?

Are radioactive cancer treatments putting healthy people at risk? According to a recent New York Times article, "When a cancer therapy puts others at risk" by Matthew L. Wald, some medical experts argue that the treatment given to thyroid cancer patients could be doing just that.

Thyroid cancer patients are treated by having them swallow a radioactive isotope to kill the malignant cancer cells. This isotope makes patients potentially dangerous to other people for up to a week. Although patients used to be required to be quarantined following this type of treatment, in 1997, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission abolished this requirement and stated that patients can go home immediately after treatment when they are the most radioactive.

Although many patients who live close can just go home, patients who have taken public transportation to receive treatment may need to board a plane or a bus. The radiation from the treatment could potentially harm fellow plane or bus passengers. Last year, a New York patient boarded a bus for Atlantic City, N.J., and set off a radiation alarm in the Lincoln Tunnel.

According to Wald, the question of where patients should go following treatment is a question now drawing concern from the medical community and patients alike. This week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission met about reinstating its previous quarantine requirement and publicly announced that they have "made a mistake" by dropping it in the first place.

Because hospitals do not allow these patients to stay overnight, about five percent of patients choose to stay in a hotel alone following treatment rather than risk contaminating family members or the public. Patients that do not live alone are also in a bind following treatment. Patients with young children or pregnant women living in their homes must find somewhere to stay following treatment as the radiation could potentially cause them harm.

Although radiation experts raise doubts that these thyroid patients pose a public health risk, some scientists have estimated that a secondhand dose of the radiation from a patient "could exceed an average American’s annual level from all natural sources, and three or four times the safe level recommended for a pregnant woman". Thyroid cancer patients are given a number of instructions on how to reduce their risk of contaminating others.

Those receiving treatment are advised not to sleep next to another person, or hug children and pregnant women for about a week. They are also advised to stay several feet away from other people and to try and keep other from coming into contact with their saliva, urine and other body fluids. In fact, last year, New York City health officials stated that radiologists and endocrinologists should not advise patients to stay in a hotel as there is potential that hotel patrons and staff could inadvertently receive radiation.

Unfortunately, there isn't any hard data to prove whether radioactive patients are actually a danger to the public. While I am slightly skeptical about the amount of secondhand radiation the public can receive these patients, I think it is best to be on the safe side and quarantine these patients. I feel extremely bad for these patients. Not only must they go through the trauma of having cancer and treatment, they have no where to stay while they are being treated. I fully support the reinstatement of the quarantine requirement so that hospitals will be forced to provide a place for these patients to stay. I hope that the Nucleur Regulatory Commission seriously considers all of the options available, and that hospitals begin to make rooms available for these patients following treatment.

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