By M. Jane Taylor and Asmaa Malik
WASHINGTON – The National Institutes of Health was not responsible for the radioactive contamination of 27 people last June, a congressional panel said Thursday.
A statement released by the subcommittee, headed by Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., said the NIH “could not have prevented” the contamination of researcher Dr. Maryann Ma and the 26 others who were poisoned.
The panel’s statement added the NIH “has a history of relatively minor safety violations,” but they pose “minimum risk to public health and safety.”
Rep. Constance Morella, R-Bethesda, asked the subcommittee to review the case last October, shortly after Ma filed a petition against the NIH with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Morella is “satisfied with the investigation by the subcommittee and is pleased that the NIH has been declared a safe place to work,” said her spokeswoman, Mary Anne Leary.
But Ma’s lawyer, Debbie Katz, called the committee “inept,” and said its decision is “very disturbing.”
Katz questioned the conclusion of the subcommittee on human resources and intergovernmental relations. She said both the NIH and the NRC had “made substantial findings that showed their [NIH’s] culpability.”
She expressed her dissatisfaction with the congressional committee’s handling of the case.
“It is shocking that the committee never met with my client, never even requested to hear her story,” Katz said. “The failure to do that kind of basic investigation lends them no credibility.”
Ma’s petition with the NRC claims she ate food that was stored in a conference room refrigerator next to radioactive materials. Ma, who was 17 weeks pregnant at the time, said she thinks the contamination was “not unintentional.”
The NRC is planning to meet with the NIH next month to discuss whether there were violations of NRC regulations that would warrant enforcement, said Sue Gagner, an NRC spokeswoman.
This could include a civil penalty or monetary fine, Gagner said.
The FBI is conducting a separate criminal investigation.
Gagner said until the criminal investigation is completed, “no one can draw conclusions” about the June 28 incident.
Ma gave birth to a son in December without complications, but Katz said the child’s medical future is still uncertain. She said he runs a “greatly increased risk of cancer in his first five to 10 years.” -30-