WASHINGTON - The United States has a shortage of laboratories to test the thousands of people who might be exposed to radiation if a "dirty bomb" detonated in a major city, according to a congressional report released yesterday.
If a dirty bomb goes off in a major downtown area and potentially exposes 100,000 people to radioactive materials, it could take four years to complete the necessary testing, according to the report that was prepared for the House Committee on Science and Technology.
A dirty bomb is a device that contains some radioactive material that could contaminate a limited area, but would not create nuclear explosions.
Should this happen in a big city, the nation would not be able to conduct the necessary tests quickly because there are few labs capable of doing so in the country. Also, the tests available address only six of the 13 radiological isotopes that would probably be used in a dirty bomb, according to the report.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates this scenario would produce 350,000 samples to be tested.
With the EPA's current lab capacity, it would take two years to complete the testing, said Dana Tulis of the EPA's office of emergency management.
"We are likely headed for a radiological Katrina if terrorists do succeed in detonating a dirty bomb in an American city," said Representative Brad Miller, Democrat of North Carolina, chairman of the subcommittee holding a hearing on the issue.
The report acknowledges that this type of dirty-bomb scenario would probably not cause massive casualties, but Miller said four years is too long to wait for results of whether people need medical treatment.
"I can't imagine a parent, who is told that their child can be tested for cesium in 2 1/2 more years, is going to be reassured to hear that their child probably won't die," Miller said in an interview Wednesday.