Radiation in the Lab

Radioactivity is no longer common in most clinical laboratories. At one point in my career, radioimmunoassays were commonly found in laboratories, and most labs had institutional radiation safety plans and carefully followed the CAP checklist for handling and dealing with radioactivity. With the advent of enzyme-linked immunoassays, sensitive nephelometers, various fluorescent and chemiluminescent technologies, and then mass spectrometry, radiation was quickly replaced in most clinical labs. The general prevailing thought was: Why deal with radiation if you don’t have to? Now days, radioimmunoassays are essentially only found in reference labs and utilized for esoteric analytes or those which cannot be measured any other way.

Despite that being true, it’s important for a lab to know what to do if radioactive materials should appear in the lab. How likely is that to happen? Perhaps more likely than you may think. Last week a sample shipped to us from an outside institution set off the radioactivity monitor on our hospital loading dock. The package was on a delivery cart with other packages so per protocol, the whole cart went to nuclear medicine where it was determined that the radioactive package was for the lab and it was brought to us. The radioactive sample turned out to be a urine sample for VMA/HVA analysis from a patient on a new cancer treatment protocol. The urine was indeed radioactive.

The shipping institution was contacted and the packaging personnel had no idea either that the sample was radioactive, although they were aware a new protocol was going into place. Working with our nuclear medicine department and the institutional radiation safety group, we have now once again put appropriate processes in place to handle and deal with radioactivity. And we’ve dusted off our old CAP checklist regulations as well.

This episode actually turned out to be a benefit to us, as we discovered that our own nuclear medicine department will be starting this new protocol soon, and had not thought ahead to possible radioactive samples sent to the lab. We are now working closely with them to ensure proper procedures and safeguards, and have a plan of action clearly in place. We also continue to work with the institution that sends us samples. The very next sample from them was properly labeled as potentially radioactive.

-Patti Jones PhD, DABCC, FACB, is the Clinical Director of the Chemistry and Metabolic Disease Laboratories at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, TX and a Professor of Pathology at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

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