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Radiation detector passes big test
False positives and negatives removed
University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh has successfully tested the Emergency Department Notification System (EDNS) by Waltham, MA-based Thermo Fisher Scientific, which a member of the ED staff describes as "novel technology" for radiation detection.
"The old detectors simply gave you a positive or negative reading," says Joe Suyama, MD, associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and an attending physician in the UPMC Presbyterian ED. "This can tell you what is hot and what isotope is giving you that signal."
In other words, it helps discern between non-hospital grade radiologicals and those commonly used in a hospital, Suyama says. "There is a ton of radioactive iodine around the hospital, for example, which is used for diagnostics or therapy," he notes. "You get dozens of hits from these hospital isotopes when people walk by the ED, so a 'plus/minus' reading is not very helpful."
Joel S. Greenberger, MD, professor and chairman of the Department of Radiation Oncology at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, says, "This is a system of radiation detectors which does not signal the controller when a hospital isotope is detected." In the past, not only iodine but iridium prostate seed implantations and sometimes even isotopes used for nuclear medicine scanning would commonly set off detectors, Greenberger says. "They were basically useless because they were always going off," he says.
The cost of the system varies based on configuration, but Greenberger says that it is "well within the range of what hospitals budget for."
At UPMC Presbyterian, there is one detector in the ambulance bay, another in the walk-in entry point to the ED, and a third set in the ED in the ceiling and in walls "and places where people might be coming in from points outside, such as another corridor," he says. There also are detectors in the ceiling and walls in the main corridor of the hospital away from the ED, Greenberger says. "All customers may not want to install those detectors away from the ED, but I thought it was important," he says.
The corporation monitors the detectors at a central office in Atlanta. "If someone came in with isotopes that should not be there, an alarm goes off in Atlanta, and Atlanta notifies command central at UPMC," Greenberger explains.
In the recent test, UPMC Presbyterian had test subjects with each of the known hospital isotopes on them. They sat by the detectors, and they did not set them off. "We also had small quantities of acceptable levels of isotopes of interest, and those people carrying them were detected," Greenberger says. "In other words, the system could differentiate between those isotopes that should not be in the hospital and those that should. There were no false positives or negatives."
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Should you be worried about radiation?
ED managers have several reasons to be concerned about radiation in their department, says Joel S. Greenberger, MD, professor and chairman of the Department of Radiation Oncology at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
"What we're worried about in radiation counterterrorism involves three different scenarios," Greenberger explains. "First, with a nuclear bomb everyone will know about it. When first responders arrive, the ED will already know that casualties need to be screened."
The second scenario involves dirty bombs, and "it would not be obvious immediately if radiation was involved," he says. In such situations people would come in with blast, burn, or pressure injuries (i.e., concussion). People who are evacuated to the ED might be treated like any other trauma victims; for example, they might be taken for a CT scan. "If radiation is on their clothing or on them, it could contaminate the hospital and take the equipment out of service," Greenberger says. "You can't use a [CT] scan that has radioisotopes in its cracks and crevices because the next patient would be contaminated."
A third possible scenario would have its origin far away from the ED, he says. "This involves a willful clandestine dispersal of radiation," Greenberger says. So, for example, someone might take radioactive materials and dust into a highly populated environment, such as a large football game, or go to the top of a building and open a bag of such materials so that people below would inhale it. "If such a person goes to visit a loved one in the ED, you would want to detect it on their clothing," says Greenberger. Even if they inhaled it, with an effective detection system, "they would set off if they came into the ED," he notes.