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Saturday, 8 February, 2003, 15:52 GMT
Radioactive material in hospitals
Where is radioactive material found in hospitals?

Radiotherapy machines, used to treat cancers, are among the most common sources of radioactive material in the medical world.
They work by firing radiation at the tumour to "burn" it off.

Cobalt 60 is one source and comes in pellet form.

Lingering problems remain from radium found in needles and tubes used in brachytherapy - a cancer-killing treatment given at a very short distance from the tumour.

Tracing their whereabouts is extremely difficult and they can be fatal if they get into the wrong hands.

Radioactive material is also found in substances used in other areas of nuclear medicine, such as radio-iodine used to treat thyroid tumours.

X-ray machines do not present a problem because they do not have a radioactive source - when the power is turned off, there is no radioactive material to present a danger.

When do problems arise?

The power of the radioactive source fades with time, leading to a need to dispose of the equipment.

The source should be removed and dealt with separately to the rest of the equipment.

Problems arise when this is not properly supervised or the radioactive sources are "lost".

This sometimes occurs, particularly in the developing world, when equipment is sold off as scrap or simply dumped.

Dr Michael Clark, scientific spokesman for the National Radiological Protection Board, said: "There are regulations to prevent this sort of thing happening in most countries and certainly in the UK.

"But 'lost and found' incidents are raising concerns globally because they do seem to be occurring regularly."

What measures exist to deal with it?

Systems in place to control the problem vary from country to country. The Western world now has few scares, but developing countries suffer from regular incidents.

In the UK, the Radioactive Substances Act governs the use and disposal of such material. The Radio Chemical Inspectorate of the Environment Agency is responsible for investigating procedures at individual hospitals.

The removed source is handled by specialist radiation processing centres such as Harwell in Oxfordshire.

Globally, the situation is less clear and the International Atomic Energy Agency works to improve systems and controls.

A spokesman for the agency said: "The problem comes when it is thrown away. That needs to be done under government supervision - particularly in the third world that is where the problem starts."

See also:

22 Feb 00 | Asia-Pacific
21 Feb 00 | Asia-Pacific
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