WASHINGTON – Rep. Constance Morella has asked the chairman of a House subcommittee to consider holding hearings on safety procedures at the National Institutes of Health, House aides said Thursday.
Mary Anne Leary, a spokeswoman for Morella, said the Bethesda Republican approached Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., on Thursday, following reports that an NIH scientist filed a complaint that she was contaminated at work by radioactive materials, while in her 17th week of pregnancy.
Bob Newman, a staffer for the House Government Reform and Oversight subcommittee on human resources, acknowledged that a meeting between his boss and Morella had taken place.
Newman said Shays would consider Morella’s request, but added he did not know when Shays will reach a decision. The subcommittee is “stacked up with hearings,” Newman said.
A Bethesda citizens’ organization this week called for a congressional investigation. Members of the North Bethesda Congress of Citizens’ Associations said they have also been asking NIH for two years to implement stricter safety procedure.
Arlene Allen, former president of the North Bethesda association, said her group warned about unsecured storage of harmful materials long before Dr. Maryann Wenli Ma was contaminated June 28.
Allen said the NIH just “side-stepped and stonewalled.
“In early spring we went to a meeting between the NIH and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to ask for tighter security controls, but we were not allowed to speak,” she said. “If they had ever listened to us, Dr. Ma might not have been contaminated.”
A spokesman for the NIH said local residents had been given ample opportunities to voice their opinions. “In the past two years, we have created an office of community relations which focuses on issues this group is concerned with,” said Tom Flavin.
“We have also established an environmental reading room, where everyone can look at our records, and an environmental concerns working group,” he said.
Eric Guille, chairman of the Bethesda group’s environmental committee, said he plans to meet this month with staff members for Morella and Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes, Baltimore Democrats.
Leary said Morella heard about the group’s concerns from a reporter.
Ma said she was contaminated in June when she ate her food leftovers, which she had stored in a conference room refrigerator. Her petition, filed Tuesday with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, charges that “these contaminations occurred as a direct and proximate result of NIH’s failure to control and secure radioactive material.”
Ma and NIH officials said they suspect that someone deliberately contaminated her food with radioactive isotopes. Over a two-week period in June, 26 other employees were also contaminated to lesser degrees when they drank water containing a radioactive substance, according to the NIH.
In her complaint, Ma’s lawyers assert that the NIH “interfered with efforts to analyze properly her level of intake of radioactive material” and “failed to minimize the health risks to Dr. Ma and her fetus.”
NIH Deputy Director Ruth Kirschstein denied any wrongdoing. “We believe NIH has provided full and proper assistance to all the employees affected,” she said.
Flavin stressed that the contamination incident happened while the NRC was conducting a routine inspection. “The inspectors found that NIH was complying with regulations,” he said.
But the citizens’ organization says the compliance is not enough. “The regulations are very weak. You can follow them and still hurt people,” said Allen.
The NRC is reviewing Ma’s petition, said spokesman Joe Gilliland. “We have to do a very thorough evaluation of the accusations and see if the relief should be granted,” he said.
Gilliland said the process may take several months and could have a variety of outcomes. The commission’s options range from dismissal of the complaints to setting a fine and the temporary revocation of NIH’s license to handle radioactive materials, as sought by Ma. -30-