November 5, 2008

D.C. Hospital Installs Radiation Detectors

By Mimi Hall

WASHINGTON -- The largest private hospital in the nation's capital on Tuesday began installing sophisticated new radiation detectors in an effort to better prepare for a terrorist attack with a radiological "dirty bomb."

The sensors, which will be placed out of public view at the 926-bed Washington Hospital Center, will immediately let doctors, nurses and other hospital staff know if someone contaminated with dangerous radiation enters the emergency room or other areas of the hospital.

The goal is to prevent victims of an attack from compounding the disaster by contaminating the hospitals and emergency workers who are there to treat them.

"If they're contaminated and you don't know it, you've got another enormous problem," says Susan Eckert, who is in charge of nurse preparedness at the hospital, which treated Pentagon victims of the 9/11 attacks. It also treated anthrax victims a month later.

The sensors, which can differentiate between dangerous radiation and the radiation used in cancer treatments, will be tested for several months to see how well they work. They are designed not to trigger an alarm if patients -- such as those treated for cancer -- walk past.

Other tests of radiation-detection equipment have been done at hospitals in Washington and in New York City, both of which are considered top terrorism targets. None has used sensors that can identify radioactive isotopes. The system can also send text messages to cellphones of hospital employees, notifying them of an alarm.

The sensors also would go off if someone tried to take radioactive waste or material used for cancer treatments out of the hospital.

This fall, the Homeland Security and Energy departments began a program to secure the machines that house radioactive material in hospitals to try to prevent someone from stealing it to make a bomb. Although a "dirty bomb" would not kill many people, it would cause sickness by spreading radiation.

"This is an important potential threat ... and there are two different problems for a hospital: what comes in and what goes out," says former envoy to Iraq Paul Bremer, chairman of Splinternet Holdings. The company, based in Norwalk, Conn., makes the sensors being tested. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>