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King-Harbor cited over radiation

A county inspection, conducted after a radioactive diaper from the hospital was found off-site, discovers 18 safety violations.

August 02, 2007|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

Only days after federal inspectors completed a review of troubled Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital, Los Angeles County public health officials cited the facility for a slew of lapses in radiation safety rules in a report released this week.

Lax monitoring and handling of radioactive materials in recent months -- and in some cases, years -- were among 18 violations found by public health surveyors, according to the report from county public health director Dr. Jonathan Fielding to the county Board of Supervisors.

Officials from the Department of Public Health's Radiation Management Unit inspected the hospital on behalf of state regulators for three days starting July 17.

The inspection occurred after radioactive substances turned up on a diaper that was found in a garbage bin at a Downey waste facility last month. The diaper apparently came from an intensive care patient who had undergone a routine medical procedure that involved radiation.

The disposal of the radioactive waste, which activated an alarm at the dump, broke state and federal laws that require that such materials be disposed of at specially licensed facilities, the report said.

The levels of radioactive material in the diaper were "very low," the county Department of Health Services said in a statement reacting to the inspection. (The county Department of Health Services, which runs the county's five public hospitals, is separate from the county Department of Public Health, which performed the review under contract to state public health officials.)

"In this incident, the dose of radiation given to the patient was safe and the exposure of hospital staff and the general public to the material was negligible," the Department of Health Services' statement said.

The diaper was found in a bag that also contained patient information, a possible violation of federal patient privacy regulations, the report said.

Before July 19, the troubled Willowbrook facility had not had a radiation safety officer, who is responsible for overseeing the safe handling of radioactive materials, for seven months. The previous officer left in January.

In addition, regular tests to detect radiation contamination and check nuclear medicine equipment were not performed, in some instances for months at a time, inspectors found. Patient rooms were not scrutinized for traces of radiation; proper records were not kept on radiation waste disposal; some staff were not adequately trained in nuclear medicine skills; and some radiation alarms were set to the wrong levels.

The hospital has since "developed a comprehensive plan to address the findings," the county health officials' statement said.

Because of the number and severity of the hospital's infractions, public health officials will hold a "compliance conference" Aug. 16 at which the hospital can present its corrective action plan, said John Schunhoff, chief deputy director of the county Department of Public Health.

The meeting "goes beyond what we normally would do," said Kevin Reilly, deputy director for the Center for Environmental Health, which is part of the state Department of Public Health.

"We take the handling of radioactive material very seriously," Reilly said. "It's really an important responsibility on the part of the hospital. We're confident that the hospital will be able to respond to these things," he said.

Officials from the county public health department's Radiation Management Unit will determine whether to accept the plan or take further action, Schunhoff said. Without corrective action, the hospital's infractions could constitute a criminal misdemeanor, he said.

County officials are awaiting the results of a critical, five-day federal inspection that was conducted last month and could determine the hospital's fate. If King-Harbor fails, it will lose $200 million in federal money, forcing county officials to close the hospital, supervisors have said. The findings are expected to be released by Aug. 15.

Though Reilly declined to speculate on what the radiation problems might mean for the hospital's future, a department spokeswoman said other state health regulators were "aware" of the violations.

The hospital has struggled to meet federal standards for years. State health regulators recently took steps to revoke King-Harbor's operating license.

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susannah.rosenblatt@ latimes.com

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