Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Big brother may be watching more closely than we think.


Over the past three years, the American government has deployed tens of thousands of detectors intended to look for those who might be up to no good with radioactive materials ...

The good news is that the devices seem to work. The bad news is that most of those covertly transporting radioactive substances turn out to be medical patients.

Medical procedures employing radiation are common these days: everything from positron-emission tomography (PET) scans to thyroid treatments use radioactive substances ... more and more patients are being caught in the security net ...

One individual, who has Graves disease, a thyroid disorder, was strip-searched twice in three weeks on the New York subway. In another case, a radioactive passenger on his way to Atlantic City caused a busload of people to be searched by police.

No one knows for sure how many people are being needlessly interrogated, but anecdote suggests the numbers are high...

Last year, America's Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a notice urging hospitals to give patients a document to show to the authorities ... But practitioners of nuclear medicine who have tried furnishing their patients with such letters are jaded. They say the documents do not seem to help.

Few security officials seem to understand the concept of medical radiation. And when they have called the Department of Homeland Security to discuss the problem, no one acknowledges that detectors even exist.

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[Economist/with subscription]