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Bioterrorism Protection Has Innocent Victims

Man held because treatment set off NYC subway alarms

WEDNESDAY, Dec. 4, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- The good news: The New York City subway system is using radiation detection devices to uncover terrorist events before they happen.

The bad news: People run the risk of being held in custody for simply having an overactive thyroid.

Police twice stopped and strip-searched a 34-year-old man in New York City subway stations recently after he triggered the radioactivity alarms. The man was taking radioactive iodine to treat a thyroid condition called Graves' disease, and the drug in his system set off the sensors. In addition to being searched, he was detained for questioning, according to a letter written by the man's doctors. It appears in today's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Graves' disease is an immune system defect that causes hyperthyroidism, or excess production of the thyroid hormone. Iodine is the most common treatment for overactive thyroid in North America, says Dr. Martin Surks, program director for endocrinology at Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. The man in question is being treated at Surks' clinic.

"We treat several hundred patients per year with radioactive iodine. It's an old, effective and safe treatment," Surks says. The treatment, which has been around since the mid 1940s, often only requires one dosing. "It's kind of like doing surgery without a knife," he continues. "It's destructive. It goes into the thyroid, which is the only tissue that holds it. While it's in the thyroid, it's killing thyroid cells even though you don't feel anything."

It's impossible to know how many people are at risk of being detained and searched by the New York City Police Department (NYPD) because they set off radiation alarms -- and for how long after treatment this remains a worry.

Surks says the amount of time the isotope stays in the body varies, with a half-life of about five days being a reasonable average. This means that after five days, half of what was originally retained in the tissue remains there.

It's also not clear how many radiation devices are being used, or how sensitive they are. The NYPD would not comment and the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which runs the subway system, did not return a phone call.

The U.S. Departments of Energy and Justice announced in August that they had "joined in a cooperative effort called the Homeland Defense Equipment Reuse (HDER) Program to provide surplus radiological detection instrumentation and other equipment to state and local emergency first responder agencies nationwide to enhance their domestic preparedness capabilities." Dolline Hatchet, an Energy Department spokeswoman, says she's not sure those devices have reached New York yet.

Although Surks has not encountered this problem again, he did call the NYPD's Terrorism Task Force about the one incident. They recommended that patients carry a note from their doctor describing the isotope, its dose, its biological half-life, the date and time of treatment and the physician's 24-hour telephone number so the police could call to verify the information in the letter.

"It sounds like a big aggravation, but it is what it is," Surks says.

The other option: Skip the subway. Take a cab.

What To Do

The American Thyroid Association has information Graves' disease, as does the National Graves' Disease Foundation.

SOURCES: Martin Surks, M.D., program director, endocrinology, Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, N.Y.; Dolline Hatchet, spokeswoman, U.S. Department of Energy, Washington, D.C.; U.S. Department of Energy press release; Dec. 4, 2002, Journal of the American Medical Association
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