Thyroid cancer is an uncommon ailment to Americans, as the National Cancer Institute reports around 37,000 new cases each year. It occurs in the thyroid gland just below your neck which regulates hormones, blood pressure, heart rate and more. Sufferers are often treated by swallowing radioactive iodine to kill malignant cells. However, this treatment leaves the patient radioactive. As the New York Times reports, this can cause problems for anyone with whom they interact.

When patients are treated with radioactive iodine, they can expose others to potentially dangerous iodine for up to a week. In Europe, hospitals commonly house patients undergoing treatment in Europe. But American insurance companies often will not pay for the accommodation. This is in part due to the fact that, in 1997, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission removed mandatory hospitalization from this treatment. Doctors are forced to sometimes tell patients to go to a hotel, leaving hotel staff and complete strangers at risk.

Ann Maddox is a 72-year old thyroid cancer sufferer recently treated at Johns Hopkins. The venerable medical institution had no place to house Maddox after her treatment. As Maddox told the NY Times, “There weren’t many choices, really.” She stayed with her pregnant daughter in Delaware the night before her treatment. But returning there was out of the question, as pregnant women and children are most vulnerable to radioactive therapy.

Travelling also posed an issue for Maddox. She could not get into a plane due to her radioactive state. Nor could she travel underground – one radioactive patient recently set off a radiation alarm in the Lincoln Tunnel. Instead, as the NY Times reports, Maddox snuck in the back door of a hotel room the night of her treatment. On the drive home, she sat as far away as possible from her husband in the car.

While some experts claim the radiation exposure from one of these patients is minimal, others point out that it exceeds an American’s annual exposure on all levels. Further, it is four times the amount a pregnant woman should receive. Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, is investigating this issue. As he told the NY Times, “My investigation has led me to conclude that the levels of unintentional radiation received by members of the public who have been exposed to patients that have received ‘drive through’ radiation treatments may well exceed international safe levels established for pregnant women and children.”

Representative Markey has also found that nearly 7 percent of all patients treated with radioactive iodine go to a hotel to recover. This means that they contaminate sheets and potential expose hotel workers and other guests to radiation.  When their bed linen is washed with other sheets, it contaminates them as well.

Therefore, health officials are trying to develop safe guidelines for doctors and patients. Doctors are now instructed not to tell patients to go to hotels. Patients are told not to eat apples or chicken wings, as their residual saliva remains radioactive. Until a practical solution is found, patients will be forced to isolate themselves the best way they can.

For further reading:

Radioactive cancer therapies may infect others
Patients become radioactive when treated for thyroid cancers and are left no safe place to go.