A D.C. government radiation inspector was abruptly transferred to a new job yesterday after he bitterly complained that his superiors were ignoring the possible effects of radiation leaking from old radium needles stored in a building near D.C. General Hospital.
The inspector, Kah-Hoc Lee, discovered the needles last week, and took instrument readings that he says indicated possibly hazardous radiation levels, despite their enclosure in lead containers called "pigs."
Herbert Wood, chief of the city's Bureau of Occupational and Institutional Hygiene, immediately ordered the needles transferred into steel drums and shipped out of the city to a storage site for radioactive waste.
Lee was helping pack the needles earlier this week when he discovered dated container labels that led him to believe he himself may have been exposed to hazardous radiation when he worked from 1970 to 1975 in a laboratory where the needles were stored.
Lee then demanded that federal radiation experts be summoned to examine the rooms in Building 22 on the D.C. General Hospital complex in Southwest Washington where the containers were stored. He also asked that an inventory be taken of the needles once popularly used to treat cancerous tumors.
But Lee said the officials refused and only seemed concerned with getting rid of the material as fast as possible.
"They do not know what they're doing," Lee said of his bosses, Wood, who like Lee has a doctorate in chemistry, and Ralph Sanderson, who was assisting with the packaging of the needles for shipment. "I lose complete confidence in these people and also I don't have any faith in their integrity. cI am worried about my health."
Wood said he transferred Lee from the occupational health division to the institutional hygiene division, where he also will be an inspector, because Lee "would not cooperate to complete the loading" of the needles.
"Definitely I won't cooperate in covering up," Lee reported when told of Wood's reasoning for the transfer. Lee said he would have continued to help load the needles if the inventory were taken and the examination of the material and rooms were undertaken.
By late yesterday, Wood said he would not allow Lee to have anything to do with the shipment of the radioactive wastes or future radiation inspections and ordered a security guard to make sure that Lee is not allowed to enter Room S-4 where the needles are being packed.
But Wood said that a private, outside expert would make radiation level testings at Building 22 and that an inventory showed that there is a total of 850 miligrams of radium that will be shipped to a government waste dump in Nevada.
Wood said that Lee might have been exposed to radiation while working in the laboratory, but that the radiation-measuring film badge Lee wore while working in the laboratory "never showed abnormality." He said Lee's fears were "very much unwarranted."
Lee confirmed that the badges showed no abnormality, but said they do not always measure all the radiation a person might be receiving. In addition, he did not know at the time that the needles were stored nearby.
Wood said there was no danger of the radiation contaminating other offices in Building 22, which houses venereal disease and drug abstinence clinics and automatic data processing facilities. But he said radiation level readings taken last week were "higher than [normal] background" levels in the laboratory. The laboratory is seldom used, he said.
"We wouldn't want someone working in there day after day," Wood said.
He said he was surprised that nine-year old radium needles were found and has no idea why they were left in the laboratory.