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Where to dig for more bombshell medical radiation stories like Bogdanich’s

Where to dig for more bombshell medical radiation stories like Bogdanich’s

Picture of William Heisel

For the past two years, New York Times reporter Walt Bogdanich has written more about medical radiation than most reporters will in their entire careers. He has examined it from every possible angle, focusing on both the power and the peril of various radiation treatments.

Antidote wrote previously about some of the great documents reporters can use to write stories like these. Here are five sources that Bogdanich has used in his series, Radiation Boom (including this powerful piece on pinpoint radiation). You should use them, too.

1. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's ADAMS database. Here is where you can read about misadministration and other misadventures in radiation. Bogdanich used this database for his terrific story about the Philadelphia VA hospital. I used it to write about Backus Hospital in Norwalk, Conn.

2. Hospital reports to the FDA. In writing about a pinpoint radiation case that left a patient hospitalized, Bogdanich asked Evanston Hospital, where the procedure occurred, to talk about the case. The hospital "declined to discuss specific cases on privacy grounds, but a brief report sent to the F.D.A. in 2009 said one patient had been hospitalized three weeks after treatment with an irregular heartbeat, weakness, and changes in mental status; another was hospitalized for four days because of nausea, vomiting and dehydration; and the third, apparently Ms. Faber, was said to have experienced hair loss." The FDA regulates one subset of radiation devices. The NRC regulates the other. You can ask both agencies for memos, letters, emails and other documents sent to or from the facilities in your area.

3. The Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire (ASN) and similar national agencies. The French Safety Authority, as it's known here, has an English-language site. Bogdanich cited an incident in France that is considered one of the worst in the history of radiation therapy, where 145 patients were overdosed. When writing about an emerging therapy or a well-known treatment that has a pattern of hidden problems, it's always good to check outside the U.S. Different countries may have regulations in place that provide for better documentation. They may have banned a treatment entirely, too.

4. The New Jersey Bureau of Radiological Health and similar state agencies. Bogdanich wrote that "New Jersey, which collects data on radiation exposure, found that 20 percent of its dental offices had high or "extremely high" radiation levels." The bureau in 2005 sent letters to all dental offices, providing them "with post inspection reports on 11,600 machines that detail the patient radiation exposure level measured at each dental x-ray machine. This report categorizes the radiation exposure at each machine into one of four levels: low, average, high or extremely high. Additionally, the radiation exposure of each machine is compared to that of all New Jersey dental facilities using the same speed dental film." Letters like these could be great starting points for stories.

5. Conference materials. Bogdanich and his fellow reporters have scoured the medical literature for studies on radiation-emitting devices, and they have attended (or attempted to attend) talks and conferences on the topic, too. One key piece of evidence came from a 2007 symposium on "Quality Assurance of Radiation Therapy." In a journal article that grew out of the symposium, the participants said, "First, the field of radiation oncology does indeed face a crisis. The formulation of QA guidance lags far behind the penetration of IMRT and image-based treatment planning into the community, leaving physicists and radiation oncologist without a clear strategy for maintaining the quality and safety of treatment. In addition to leaving practitioners and patients at greater risk of catastrophic delivery errors, data from in vitro phantom testing have suggested that the quality of IMRT delivery has been much poorer than expected."


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