Patients given medical radioactive materials may be detained in antiterrorist security sweeps

By December 12, 2002 August 8th, 2016 Public Health Statements

December 12, 2002

Authorities at government buildings and transportation centers are using portable radiation detectors to catch terrorists who have been handling radioactive bomb-making materials. The detectors cannot distinguish illegal radioactive materials from the emissions of radioactive pharmaceuticals used medically. Some patients who have received radioactive tests or treatments are setting off the detectors, and some patients are being detained (1).

American Thyroid Association member Dr. Martin Surks and his colleague Dr. Christoph Buettner have published a letter about this problem in the Journal of the American Medical Association (2). They ask physicians to warn patients that they risk being detained after a radioactive test or treatment. According to the letter, the New York City Police Department’s Terrorism Task Force suggests that physicians give treated patients a letter to carry in case they are stopped for setting off a radiation detector. The police might want to verify such a letter.

The American Thyroid Association recommends that when patients are given significant amounts of radionuclides, especially radioactive iodine (I131), they should get a statement from their doctor outlining the:

  • patient’s identifying information
  • treating institution and physician, and date and time of treatment
  • isotope used, its dose, and its biological half-life
  • physician’s around-the-clock phone numbers

    A model form is linked here. It can be downloaded and should be printed on the physician’s letterhead.

    A model label to be affixed to the physician’s business card is linked here.


  1. Baker, Al: High security trips up some irradiated patients, doctors say. New York Times, December 4, 2002.
  2. Buettner, Christoph, and Surks, Martin I.: Police detainment of a patient following treatment with radioactive iodine (letter). JAMA 288(21), December 4, 2002.