October 11, 1995
Web posted at: 10:40 a.m. EDT
From Correspondent Jeff Levine
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Fighting back tears, cancer researcher Maryann Wenli Ma described how radiation she was perhaps deliberately exposed to at one of the nation's top medical labs has tainted her hopes of having a healthy child. "I'm very, very worried about baby, so every night I can't get good sleep. And my head is very pained since this happened," she said Tuesday.
Ma and her husband, Bill Wenling Zheng, came to the United States from China last year to do high-level cancer research at the National Institutes of Health. But in June, the couple believes, Ma was deliberately exposed to 20 times the safe level of a radioactive isotope, phosphorous 32. They contend NIH failed to respond adequately. "The treatment was useless. This was just one of the many lies the NIH told trying to downplay what happened," Zheng charged.
Ma got sick after eating food stored near where radiation was detected. "The food that was contaminated was in a closed container. So someone had to put the radioactive materials into the food in a closed container," claimed Ma's attorney, Lynn Bernabei.
The incident occurred shortly after Ma told her boss she was pregnant, which would have interrupted her research because she would have had to avoid radioactive material. She said her supervisor, John Weinstein, pressured her to get an abortion. Weinstein denies the allegation.
Ma and her husband are asking the government to revoke NIH's license to handle hazardous nuclear materials in its medical research. Their lawyers called for a congressional investigation. NIH declined to comment, but in a statement it claimed that the level of radiation dose to which Ma was exposed was within acceptable limits
The couple alleged that NIH tried to cover up the incident, under-reported the dose of radiation, discounted any risk to Ma or her unborn child and interfered with her treatment when she sought help at a hospital.
Ma fears the incident could trigger cancer in either her or her baby, which is due in December. But some experts say it would be hard to tell if the exposure were responsible if she got cancer. "When the cancer cells are given to a pathologist for analysis, there is no difference that they can discern that would distinguish it from naturally occurring cancer," explained Terry Johnson of George Washington Hospital.
In addition to the NIH, the FBI and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are investigating the matter. The NIH admits that the contamination probably was intentional. Officials also are investigating contamination of a water cooler within two weeks of Ma's case. Twenty-five people received a lesser dose of radiation in that incident.
NIH insists that federal officials have determined the agency has an excellent nuclear safety program. But a spokeswoman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission described NIH's efforts as "pretty good, with room for improvement."
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