Leaky, outmoded X-ray machines at Prince George's General Hospital are exposing doctors, technicians and patients to doses of rediation far in excess of those permitted by state and federal health regulations, according to official records.
Excessive rediation at the public hospital has occurred since 1975, records show, and the problem has grown worse as the facility's X-ray equipment has grown older. A December 1978 inspection found rediation levels 83 percent above the state approved maximum in one room while levels in a second room exceeded allowable limits by 30 per cent.
"At the present time, the equipment we have imposes a health hazard upon patients, physicians and technicians," Raleigh Cline, the hospital's chief executive officer, informed the county's director of hospitals last month.
William A. Parker, director of the county commission that overseas public hospitals in Prince george's said Prince george's General has not replaced the hazardous machines since 1975 because commission members placed a "higher priorty" on construction of a new laundry, a parking lot and an ambulatory care building. In addition, he said, hospital officials diverted funds that had been allocated for new X-ray machines and used them for general hospital operations.
According to federal standards, the maximum safe dosage of rediation for a person is 5 rems a year and no more than 3 rems during a three-month period. In Maryland, businesses using X-ray devices are prohibited from allowing their workers or customers to receive more than 1.25 rems in three months.
A rem is a measure of rediation's effect on living cells. the average American receives an average of .1 rem each year in "background" radiation from such sources as the sun. Long-term accumulations of rediation can lead to cataracts, temporary sterilty, birth defects and leukemia, according to various medical studies.
One rediologist at Prince George's General, Dr James Stewart, has been receiving excessive dosages of radiation as far back as 1975, according to hospital records, when his radiation detector badge measured an accumulation of more than 7 rems in a three-month period-more than twice the federal standard for safe dosages in a quarterly period.
"I'd like to see when I'm 60," said Stewart, who wears eyeglasses containing protective lead but still worries about cataracts, "It makes it hard to see these X-rays if you're blind."
Dr. William Stecher, chief of thr radiology department, received 8.65 rems during the first six months of 1976, according to records. "You have to be fatalistic (in this job)," he said in an interview.
Radiologists like Stecher and Stewart, their four colleagues and the 25 technicians who work with X-ray machines throughout the day face the greatest danger of overexposure. About 3,000 patients each year visit the two hospital rooms containing the faulty X-ray devices, but they face less danger because their exposure is limited to a few minutes per examination.
Although only two of the hospital's X-ray machines have been found to exceed permissable radiation standards, Prince Georges General other eight X-ray machines are considered outdated. X-ray equipment, according to hospital officials, has a "useful life" of six or seven years under normal use, but all of the hospital's devices are at least 8 years old, and one is 14 years old.
Doctors liken the X-ray machines to aging autos which progressively leak more oil and require more gasoline to drive the same distance as they get older. Thus, the old X-ray machines "leak" radiation and require "more oomph to get a better image so you can seee something," according to Stecher.
Continued use of the outmoded equipment after Aug. 1, when new federal standards go into effect, could threaten the hospital's accreditation and license to operate, according to hospital executive Cline.
Before the old equipment can be replaced, approvals must be obtained from several public agencies, including the Southern Maryland Health Systems Agency, the Maryland Comprehensive Health Planning Agency and the Maryland Health Service Cost Review Commission.
The hospital is aready five months behind its own timetable for replacing the equipment, which lists 11 bureaucratic hurdles to be cleared.
And, while a plan to lease new equipment for $110,000 annually is being debated by the hospital and various government agencies hospital officials say they will continue to use the old machines until replacements can be obtained, another 18 months, according to one estimate.
"The major concern" expressed at a hospital staff meeting Feb. 27 was "the high exposure levels that the patients are receiving," according to a summary of the minutes.
The doctors and technicians who expose themselves daily to X-ray rediation face another problem. Stecher was asked what his family thinks of his occupational exposure to radiation. "You don't tell them, that's all," he said. "You go to work, that's it. Why have them worry?"