NHS Trust fined for radioactivity leak

Plymouth Hospitals NHS Trust has been ordered to pay almost £20,000 in fines and costs after exposing staff and properties in two countries to radioactive material.

The case, brought against the Devonshire Trust by the Environment Agency (EA), related to a single small radioactive implant, called a ‘seed’.

Commonly used to tackle prostate cancer – implanted directly into the glad to deliver a high dose of radiation – singular seeds, around the size of a grain of rice, are relatively harmless, with cancer sufferers often having up to 100 implanted at a time. However, one such seed was damaged during an operation in October 2008, which staff at Derriford Hospital, Plymouth, failed to notice.

The damaged seed was only discovered nine days later, after the Trust returned a container thought to be empty, back to the seed manufacturers in Germany.

Even at that point, the Trust kept quiet; acting only in December, when contamination was detected as part of a routine inspection. The Environment Agency, which by law should have been told immediately, was not informed until 69 days after the incident.

Finding against Plymouth Hospitals Trust, magistrates ruled that the Trust had acted in an “extremely careless” manner with regard to both managing the spread of contamination, and informing the correct authorities.

Speaking after the hearing, the EA’s Gary McMeekan said: “This case was about a failure to carry out a risk assessment on the use of new equipment, failures in the Trust’s management arrangements and the consequences that resulted from those failures.

“We do not believe that there was any risk to the environment or to human health. However, if the Trust had carried out a risk assessment the incident could have been avoided.”

Plymouth Hospitals NHS Trust admitted to failing to prevent damage to a sealed radioactive source containing iodine 125 on 28 October 2008. It also admitted to failing to minimise the spread of contamination, failing to dispose of a damaged radioactive source and failing to tell the Environment Agency as required by its permits.

The Trust was fined £10,000 and ordered that it pay £9,228 costs.

Sam Plester

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