NIH Officials Acknowledge Intentional Radiation Contamination of Woman Researcher and Her Fetus

by Beth Corbin

NIH officials aknowledged that the radiation contamination of Dr. Maryann Wenli Ma (pictured), her husband Dr. Bill Wenling Zheng and 25 others was no accident.

 Ed. note: NOW passed a resolution in 1993 supporting current and former employees of the National Institutes of Health in their fight to end sexism and racism on the NIH campus. Articles detailing the harassment and discrimination appeared in the August 1993, November 1993 and April 1994 issues of the National NOW Times.

 Was it misogyny or malicious intent fueled by a fiercely competitive environment? That might be the $64,000 question surrounding the radiation contamination of a woman researcher and her fetus at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

 Affidavits filed in October by Dr. Maryann Wenli Ma and her husband Dr. Bill Wenling Zheng charge the NIH with "willful and reckless" violations of safety standards regarding the handling and storage of radioactive materials, which they contend contributed to the contamination of Dr. Ma. While their petition of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to suspend or revoke NIH's license to handle the material was denied, their attorneys have suggested that other actions will likely be filed, saying the couple must first exhaust administrative remedies. The FBI is also investigating the incident.

Chronology of Events

 So what happened? Here is their version of the events as recounted in their affidavits and in press statements. Ma and Zheng began working at the National Cancer Institute (a division of the NIH) in 1994. They were academic stars, having graduated with honors from the best schools in China. A two-year fellowship at the NIH could lead to prestigious careers upon their return to China or the possibility of a new life here in the United States.

 They were assigned to conduct cancer research in the Laboratory of Molecular Pharmacology, under the direction of senior investigator Dr. John N. Weinstein. Weinstein's lab works to develop therapies for treating cancer and AIDS, part of a massive cancer-drug screening program. Phosphorous 32 (P-32), a highly radioactive isotope, is sometimes used in this research.

 In affidavits, an administrative filingand a press release, Ma and Zheng outlined the highly competitive nature of their work. The couple said that on many occasions Dr. Weinstein told them their experiments were so important he "did not want anything to hold them up." They said that Dr. Weinstein required them to work tirelessly on this project so that the new procedure could be patented. The project, if successful, would have significant scientific and commercial value.

 When Dr. Ma learned in April that she was pregnant, she was reluctant to share the information with Dr. Weinstein. The couple allege that Dr. Weinstein was so upset when he learned of Ma's pregnancy that he urged her to have an abortion to keep their work on schedule and to keep their patent viable. They said that Weinstein continued to pressure them and, after an "unpleasant" meeting on Sunday, June 25, the couple invited him to lunch at a local Chinese restaurant. Dr. Ma took the leftovers to work for lunches during that week.

 Three days later, after eating the leftover food, Dr. Ma complained of sharp pains in her liver area. A routine sweep of the lab for radiation the next day revealed her contamination. Further investigation indicated the contamination was internal. A spot of radiation was also detected in front of the refrigerator in the conference room where Dr. Ma's lunch had been stored. The contamination was quickly identified as P-32, commonly used at the NIH but not used in Ma and Zheng's experiments since earlier that year.

NIH Admits Foul Play

 NIH officials acknowledged in an interview with The Washington Post that the contamination was not accidental. They did, however, downplay the extent of the contamination, saying that Ma had taken in 200 to 300 microcuries of P-32. (A microcurie is a measure of radioactive activity.) Anne Thomas, an NIH representative said: "The doctors who examined her do not believe this will cause any long-term medical complications for her or her fetus."

 Later estimates by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which examined her, put the figure at double the NIH figure, and Dr. Ma's attorneys now claim that an independent lab estimates the contamination to be closer to a thousand microcuries. At a news conference on Oct. 10, her attorney said, "It is now believed that Dr. Ma, who was 17 weeks pregnant at the time of the incident, received the largest reported dose of internal radiation contamination since Karen Silkwood."

 Exposure to radioactive materials is generally measured in rems, a term that relates the absorbed dose of a radioactive material to its biological effect. An acceptable dose for occupational exposure of a non-pregnant woman, according to the NRC, is five rems. For a pregnant woman, it is one-tenth of that, or one-half of one rem. The radiation expert hired by Dr. Ma's attorney's estimated that she received an exposure of 9.2 rems, and that the fetus received 6.4 rems -- a dose to the fetus that was 12 times higher than the dosage considered safe for a pregnant woman.

Treatment Delayed

 In her statement, Dr. Ma further questioned why Dr. Weinstein and NIH safety officials delayed her transport to the hospital by more than three hours, and then gave conflicting directions to hospital personnel which delayed her treatment. They contend that while Dr. Weinstein attempted to downplay the effects of Ma's contamination, he repeatedly suggested that "the baby [sic] should be worried" and that he urged them to consult with their Ob/gyn -- offering at one point to place the call himself. They declined his offer.

 In her statement Ma said: "We later learned that Dr. Weinstein had told a number of people . . . that we already had a child in China -- which is untrue -- and that under the China one child' policy it was necessary that we abort the baby. He suggested that we had contaminated ourselves to abort the pregnancy. We also learned that Dr. Weinstein has suggested to others that Bill contaminated me because he learned that our expected baby is female and wanted me to abort the pregnancy. These suggestions are outrageous and have been extremely damaging to our professional reputations and careers."

 In an interview with The Washington Post, Dr. Weinstein denied that he ever pressured his scientists to abort their fetus or that he contaminated Ma's food with P-32: "The obvious answer is, of course not. It's preposterous."

Co-workers Contaminated

 Ma was not the only one contaminated. It took NIH officials two weeks to discover that the water cooler in the same general area as the public refrigerator was also contaminated with radioactive material. Traces of P-32 found near the water cooler are believed to have caused internal contamination to Zheng and 25 other co-workers.

Return to January 1996 newspaper

 Return to NOW Home Page