Medicine: Radioactive!

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"Mortal danger: forbidden to set foot here," read the police signs around the Haanschoten family's modest little house in the Netherlands town of Putten (pop. 12,000), south of the Zuider Zee. To enforce the order, barbed wire was strung around three sides of the house and its yard, and police mounted 24-hour guard. A team of radiation experts worked with a scintillation counter over every square foot of the grounds. The counter registered 60 times the normal (background) radioactivity. Technicians, looking like spacemen in white rubber suits with protective masks and gloves, used long-handled shovels to put radioactive matter away in a special truck. Frightened townsfolk washed their hair as often as Mary Martin in South Pacific, and many trooped in to the local police station to have their radioactivity tested. All this furor was touched off by a little Putten girl's stuffy nose.

Jacoba ("Joke") Haanschoten, 5, a child of a Putten factory worker, had enlarged and infected adenoids that threatened to block a Eustachian tube. Such blockage could, in turn, cause infection of the middle ear. A fortnight ago Joke (pronounced Yo-ka) went to Utrecht's City and Academic Hospital, 25 miles away. Doctors decided to destroy the diseased, swollen tissue with powerful gamma rays from a radium "needle"—actually a blunt metal capsule, 20 mm. by 3 mm., on a long, flexible shaft. One doctor pushed this up Joke's nose until it curved down into the nasopharynx. After eight minutes, he took the gadget out, put it in its case and sent Joke home.

That night Joke began to vomit. Her parents wrapped the vomit in newspaper and tossed it into the stove. Next morning Joke seemed all right and went off to kindergarten; her father threw the ashes from the stove on a backyard dump. A doctor, checking radium needles at the hospital, noticed that the tip of the one used on Joke (it had already been condemned because of oxidation at the junction of head and shaft) was missing. When it could not be found in the treatment room, out went the alarm.

While public-health officials worked to decontaminate the Haanschoten family and their neighbors, doctors pieced together a theory of what had happened. The needle — a powerful 50 millicurie source, 500,000 times what can be safely left in the body for a lifetime—had broken off in Joke's nasopharynx. She had swallowed it. During the evening, the radiation made Joke sick. When she vomited, up came the needle. In the stove, the capsule was destroyed and the radium salt was scattered through the ashes.

Decontamination was expected to take weeks, the greatest danger being radioactive ashes and dust, which are hard to control. Joke was back at the hospital for observation last week and seemed well enough, but there was grave danger that she might later develop cancer.