Deliveries of lifesaving radioactive isotopes to hospitals across the globe are too often held-up or blocked during international transport, with patients potentially missing critical medical treatment or diagnosis due to skittish airlines or national regulations, experts have warned a United Nations-sponsored meeting convened to tackle the issue.
Some airlines, for example, have policies against carrying any radioactive material while a country’s regulatory controls may create bottlenecks, effectively blocking shipments, regulatory and industry officials told participants gathered for the week-long meeting at the Vienna headquarters of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
“Radioactive material is very safely transported, based on standards developed by the IAEA which have been operating for 43 years,” the Agency’s Unit Head for Safety of Transport of Radioactive Materials Michael Wangler said.
But Industry representatives are warning of a growing incidence of denials or delays in shipping such radioactive material as isotopes commonly used 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,” he added. 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,” he said, although the number of blocked or delayed shipments is not known.
Routes in Europe, the Asia-Pacific region, 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. Part of the problem is that there are fewer carriers and fewer routes available than before.
The commercial incentives for airlines to carry radioactive materials have diminished as the cost of additional regulatory controls has increased. 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.
Participants include representatives from regulatory authorities, producers of radioactive sources, airlines, shippers and other transport operators, and international organizations.