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Nuclear Safety Violations Found at Toronto Labs

OTTAWA, CANADA--Citing violations of nuclear safety regulations, the government has blocked the use of radioisotopes for research at one of Canada's largest academic/medical hospital complexes. The action, taken on 2 December by the Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB), has halted all experiments involving radioactive compounds in 91 labs at the Toronto-based University Health Network (UHN). Although roughly 20 of the labs may be allowed to resume normal operations as early as this week, the AECB has said that patient care could be affected next spring if the network does not make the necessary improvements.

"They've been given a timeline," says AECB license assessment officer Richard Cawthorn. "If they don't meet that, they will have used [up] all of their get-out-of-jail-free cards." Although AECB's mandate covers only worker and public safety, Cawthorn says, it will have little choice but to take "further licensing action that will restrict the clinical areas" if the problems are not corrected by 1 April. UHN chief operating officer Michael Guerriere says he expects all 91 labs to be in compliance and operational within 3 to 4 weeks.

The suspension follows a routine investigation of safety practices at UHN, which has a license to conduct experiments with radioactive materials at five buildings housing cardiac, neurosciences, organ transplant, and oncology programs. The inquiry found many deficiencies, including excessive contamination levels and unreported losses of sealed radioactive materials--problems that Cawthorn says indicated that the hospitals were exerting little control over the radioactive materials being used. Some 55 instances of noncompliance were discovered during site visits at the three hospitals in November. The occupational safety program "was essentially nonfunctional," according to a report from a site visit in October. Guerriere attributes the lapses in safety practices to confusion caused by a merger in January 1998 of three Toronto hospitals that created UHN.

The AECB has laid down nine directives that UHN must follow, including creation of a comprehensive radiation safety program covering all operations and facilities and adequate training of employees. Although no one on staff is known to have received an excessive dose of radiation, the board has also ordered UHN to perform a thyroid bioassay on one worker. Cawthorn says he's unaware of any instances in which patients were exposed to excessive radiation, either, but adds that patient care is "not within the AECB mandate."