Are Radioactive Cancer Patients Endangering Us All?

Maressa Brown

Forget being paranoid that your cell phone or microwave is emitting radiation. Now, as if we needed more reason to be anti-social, un-neighborly, rude, or even just standoffish with strangers: The person sitting next to you on the subway could be even more dangerous.

As weird as it sounds, there's growing concern about thyroid cancer patients, who are treated with radioactive iodine, which may present problematic levels of radiation to those around them for up to a week.

In fact, after thyroid treatment, patients are advised not to hug children or pregnant women (who are considered particularly vulnerable), or to sleep next to another person, for several days—depending on their dose of medication, according to The New York Times. And they're not even supposed to eat chicken wings or whole apples, because the bones or core will be contaminated with radioactive saliva. Eeek!  

Nonetheless, the Nuclear Regulatory Agency got rid of a requirement in 1997 that stated thyroid cancer patients must be quarantined after their treatment. Their rationale was that letting people recuperate at home would "cut costs, benefit the patients, and allow doctors with no quarantine facilities to perform the treatment."

Sounds good in theory, maybe, but as a result, many patients have simply gone back to life as normal, spending their time around fellow citizens and family members. One recently boarded a bus to Atlantic City from NYC after treatment and set off a radiation alarm in the Lincoln Tunnel!

Recently, a staff official with the regulatory nuke group said that they may have jumped the gun on dropping the quarantine requirement. Uh, yeah, you think? And Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Democrat of Massachusetts, is concerned, too: His investigation has concluded that the levels of "unintentional radiation received by members of the public who have been exposed to patients ... may well exceed international safe levels established for pregnant women and children." 

With that in mind, it's easy enough to say, "Get a room!" to recently treated thyroid cancer patients. But while hospital isolation is still in practice in Europe, it seems patients have to beg and plead for the same here in the U.S. Why? Well, some hospitals aren't outfitted with special isolation rooms, and medical insurance usually won't cover the stay unless a patient's doc states that it's medically necessary. In other words, big surprise—there's a helluva lot of insane red tape surrounding this dilemma. And without a hospital to stay in, patients' "safe" options are extremely limited. In fact, New York and other states have enacted policies recommending that docs "not advise their patients to check into a hotel."

So what's a thyroid cancer patient to do? "Staying several feet away from other people and keeping them from contact with their saliva, urine, and other bodily fluids" doesn't seem like it's going to cut it. Not when there are 40,000 new cases of the disease every year. 

What do you think: Should cancer patients be required to stay (in a hospital) or should they go? 


Image via Mad House Photography/Flickr

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