Panel urged to approve task force on risks of nasal radium therapy Recipients of treatment testify on health problems

March 12, 1998|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

All Deborah D'Domenicus knew as a little girl about the doctor's procedure is that it made her ears hurt. She developed such terrible earaches that her parents had to hold her sobbing in bed.

Yesterday, she told Maryland legislators about the pain that came later in life -- a tumor in her right ear, chronic sinus infections, migraine headaches and hearing loss that she blames on the nasal radium treatments she received as a 9-year-old.

D'Domenicus came to Annapolis with a half-dozen men and women who underwent the same treatment as children to urge that a state task force be established to examine the health risks. The proposed panel would be given two years to conduct a study and come up with a notification system for Marylanders who got the once-popular nasal radium therapy.

"It's not easy walking around with a time bomb on your physical health and future," said D'Domenicus, a 45-year-old mother of two from Columbia, in testimony before a Senate committee that is reviewing the proposal.

As many as 67,000 people in Maryland are believed to have received the treatment, pioneered by Johns Hopkins physicians, in which radium-tipped probes were inserted in nostrils to shrink swollen lymphoid tissue.

During the boom in radiation treatments after World War II, doctors prescribed the procedure to treat hearing loss, tonsillitis, allergies and even colds among children. Its use faded in the mid-1960s, supplanted by antibiotics and ear tubes, but debate over its risk continues today. Scientists disagree over whether exposure to the radiation increases the danger of head and neck cancers and thyroid problems.

Stewart A. Farber, a Rhode Island scientist who specializes in radiation risk, argues that medical institutions such as Hopkins have been too slow in notifying people of the potential risk. Farber, who has created a registry of those who were treated, joined the group yesterday in testifying before the Senate's Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee.

Maryland had the highest per capita use in the nation, he said, and the recipients "should be recalled and have detailed head and neck exams."

The federal Department of Veterans Affairs has been tracking down thousands of pilots and submariners who received the treatment for ear problems to warn them of an increased risk of cancer. But no one is doing the same for civilians. Many medical institutions no longer have records of the treatments, and some physicians who administered them privately are dead.

Sen. David R. Craig, a Harford County Republican who had the treatment as a 6-year-old, has introduced a bill to create a nine-member task force to report back to the legislature in 2000 with recommendations, including possibly a notification system and a protocol for follow-up examinations.

"We want some way for the people who had this done and the doctors to know what they should look for," Craig said.

Joe Nichols, 46, a consultant from Baltimore who attributed a stroke he suffered in 1982 to the procedure, spoke in a halting voice about how his mother trusted the renowned Johns Hopkins physicians when she sought treatment for his boyhood hearing problems.

"I kind of feel I got cheated," he said. "I still can't hear. My left arm is numb. I can't blame my mother; she thought it was the right thing to do."

Pub Date: 3/12/98

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