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Medical tests can trigger radiation detector’s alarm

Radiation symbol.
Travelers may now face a new security problem. They could set off radiation detectors meant to detect smuggled nuclear-bomb material but that also sense the small amounts of radioactive elements used in exercise stress tests and other increasingly common medical procedures.

The numbers explain the situation:

• There are now some 10,000 portable radiation detectors deployed throughout the U.S. at metropolitan transit stations and at border crossings and other points of entry. They may also be set up at sporting events, political rallies, and the like. They are not used at airport checkpoints, but may be at other airport locations.

• More than 16 million patients now undergo a medical test or treatment that involves the use of a radioactive element such as thallium or an iodine isotope.

• Detectable levels of some elements can remain in the body for as long as three months (see the table below).

The use of radiation detectors has been on the increase since Sept. 11, 2001. The number of people undergoing nuclear-medicine procedures has also been growing, increasing the likelihood of tripping a detector. To date, though, there are no figures for the number of people who may have been stopped by these detectors.


If you undergo a test or treatment involving radiation and expect to travel or attend a large public gathering soon afterward, carry a letter of explanation from your doctor. It can help clear up any questions from security personnel if you do activate an alarm.

With some treatments (see the table below) you may need to keep the letter on hand for one to three months. The letter should state who can be contacted to independently confirm details of your treatment.

According to the Society of Nuclear Medicine, the doctor’s letter should specify the name and date of the medical procedure, the specific type of radioactive element used and its half-life, and the amount of material administered. The letter should also provide 24-hour contact information for the doctor or hospital.


This table is based on findings from a recent, as-yet-unpublished study by Dr. Lionel Zuckier, professor of radiology at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and his colleagues. They examined the length of time that common radiation treatments may stay in the body and trigger security detectors.


PET scan

Measures the body’s use of glucose
to detect various forms of cancer; also detects early Alzheimer’s disease.

Less than 24 hours.
Bone and
thyroid scans
Bone scans can help detect cancer and find fractures or infections.
Thyroid scans diagnose disease of the thyroid gland.

3 days.
Cardiac exams
with thallium
Detects coronary heart disease.

Up to 30 days.
Iodine therapy Used to treat thyroid cancer and overactive thyroid.

Up to 95 days.

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