Alarms in US airports set off by radioactive therapy

A man who flew to Florida for a holiday with his family and friends had a nasty shock at Orlando airport. He triggered an alarm, was taken aside, strip-searched and checked by sniffer dogs while his companions watched in horror.

After extensive questioning, when he realised the security guards suspected him of carrying a radioactive bomb, the 46-year-old man remembered his medical treatment for an overactive thyroid gland six weeks earlier.

He was able to produce a medical card showing he had been treated with radioactive iodine, an infusion of which is used to kill the overactive cells in the thyroid. He was released.

Reporting the case in the British Medical Journal, doctors say 10,000 patients a year are treated with radioactive iodine in the UK alone and as airport security alarms become more sensitive the likelihood of false alarms will increase.

The man in Orlando, who has not been named, had passed through a UK airport without setting off alarms, indicating the differing sensitivity of alarms used in the two countries.

Dr Kalyan Gangopadhyay, of City Hospital, Birmingham, the lead author of the report, said the case demonstrated how long radioactive iodine can remain in the body.

"In Europe and America there will be hundreds of thousands of people having this treatment. Airport security alarms are being made more sensitive worldwide so we will get more of these incidents."

Dr Gangopadhyay said the man had been very distressed. "He said it was embarrassing. He would not have made the journey if he had had an inkling of the harassment he was likely to face. We could only apologise to him for the lack of information given."

Earlier incidents have been recorded in the medical literature of patients treated with radioactive isotopes setting off security alarms. In the 1980s two visitors on a public tour of the White House set off an alarm and were held until the cause was discovered.

In 2004, a 55-year-old pilot triggered an alarm at Moscow airport and was detained until the cause was found. Four days later he set off the alarm again.

The City Hospital in Birmingham is issuing cards to all patients treated with radioactive iodine with a warning that airport alarms may be triggered for up to 12 weeks.

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