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Lifesaving Medical Isotopes Denied International Transport

Patients depend on international shipments of lifesaving isotopes to arrive on time. (Photo: R. Quevenco/IAEA)

Deliveries of lifesaving medical isotopes to hospitals across the globe are too often being held-up or blocked during international transport, according to reports received by the IAEA.

The potential fear is that patients will miss critical medical treatment or diagnosis.

Industry representatives are warning of a growing incidence of denials or delays in international shipments of radioactive material. They include isotopes commonly used in medicine to diagnose heart attacks, sterilize medical equipment or treat cancer.

"Hospitals and patients need the international shipments to arrive on time, especially if the isotope has a short shelf live," said Paul Gray of Nordion, a company that produces the isotopes.

For example, iodine (used to treat and diagnose thyroid cancer) has a very short half-life so it must be sent quickly by air. "If we get an order from a hospital in the afternoon, we´ll produce the isotope and arrange to fly it out that night," Mr. Gray said. If the iodine misses the flight it becomes useless. If it gets on another then its use is more limited.

"Around 70-80 million medical procedures are performed using isotopes each year," Mr. Gray said. However, the number of blocked or delayed shipments is not known.

Routes in Europe, Asia Pacific, and the Mediterranean are among those where denial and delays have occurred. There are instances where medical isotopes are forced to travel three times the direct distance, Jim Stewart, Transport Radiological Advisor, UK Department of Transport, said.

Part of the problem, said David Brennan, Assistant Director of Dangerous Goods and Safety International Air Transport Association, is that today there are fewer carriers and fewer routes available than before.

Some airlines, for example, have policies against carrying any radioactive material. In other instances, a country´s regulatory controls may create bottlenecks that have effectively blocked shipments, he said.

A meeting to address the issue is being held 8-12 May 2006 at the IAEA´s Vienna Headquarters. Economics is cited as among key concerns driving the delays.

The commercial incentives for airlines to carry radioactive materials have diminished as the cost of additional regulatory controls has increased, Mr. Brennan said. For example, countries might have multiple levels of regulatory controls, such as requiring a dedicated storage area for radioactive materials, employing a radiation protection advisor or banning radioactive materials if animals are also on the flight.

Shipments of medical and industrial radioactive material are regulated by countries and the airline industry in accordance with the IAEA´s International Regulations for the Safe Transport of Radioactive Material.

"Radioactive material is very safely transported, based on standards developed by the IAEA which have been operating for 43 years," Mr. Michael Wangler, IAEA Unit Head, Safety of Transport of Radioactive Materials, said.

The weeklong meeting will further gauge the extent of the problem, improve the flow of information and formulate solutions. Participants include representatives from regulatory authorities, producers of radioactive sources, airlines, shippers and other transport operators, and international organizations. Actions to tackle the issue were first adopted at the IAEA´s General Conference in September 2004.

Last update: 27 Jul 2017

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