The Danger Zone : In the nation’s top research lab a pregnant scientist discovers she’s been dosed with radiation. But how? It’s a bizarre mystery that points to foul play.


On or shortly before June 28, 1995, in a small conference room off a fifth-floor laboratory at the prestigious National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., someone acting in stealth and with malice did something evil.

That may be vague, but it is one of the few facts not in dispute in what some are calling the Chinese Karen Silkwood case, a bizarre mystery engulfing the nation’s preeminent biomedical research facility.

The allegations defy credulity. A pregnant scientist--a highly skilled Chinese national here on a research visa--claims in a legal complaint that her food was deliberately poisoned with a radioactive isotope to induce an abortion or to scare her into seeking one. In her view, the most likely culprit was her boss, who she says was under pressure to complete a research project that might have been delayed if she had taken maternity leave. On several previous occasions, she says, he had urged her to abort.


The supervisor, a widely respected researcher, indignantly denies it all. He never complained about her pregnancy, he says, never urged an abortion and certainly never adulterated her food. Current and former colleagues have hustled to his defense with letters and statements attesting to his integrity.

But still: The woman was undeniably contaminated with radioactivity. It remains in her body--although in what concentration and at what peril to her and her fetus are under debate.

Worse, whatever happened was no accident. Traces of the isotope were found in and around the water cooler in the lab--a contamination investigators feel certain indicates foul play. Twenty-six other workers who drank from the cooler were also contaminated, though in lower doses.

Clearly, someone poisoned someone.

Clearly, someone is lying, or there has been a catastrophic misunderstanding.

And clearly, the NIH’s vaunted scientific community is blinking nervously under a spotlight far harsher than it is accustomed to. That is because underlying everything is this: For many NIH researchers, even those who did not know the participants, the allegations instantly touched a nerve. They sounded outrageous, scurrilous, illogical, but somehow not entirely implausible.

Research science is no longer the genteel, ivory-tower pursuit it once was. Dwindling appropriations for research mean that fewer projects get funded, and the only thing that seems to grow is uncertainty for scientists and their staffs. Meanwhile, the push to commercialize discoveries has turned some labs into shark tanks, fiercely competitive for grants, for publicity, for results. Scientists swap stories at the NIH and other research institutions of people sabotaging competitors’ experiments, of fudging data to get desired results. Might such competitive pressures also induce someone to commit a desperate, or twisted, act?


This month evidence surfaced suggesting other recent radiation-contamination cases, in other cities, tantalizingly similar to this one.

The NIH, FBI, Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a congressional subcommittee are trying to figure out what really happened to scientist Maryann Wenli Ma, 31, dosed somehow with an isotope of phosphorus called P-32. The investigation is slow and, so far, without results.

“Unfortunately,” said one of the army of investigators working on the case, “we didn’t stop a car with somebody leaving the scene with a vial of P-32.”

Ground Zero

The scene of the crime is the Laboratory of Molecular Pharmacology, found in the NIH’s Building 37. It is part of a nondescript complex of three structures that house the laboratories of several Nobel laureates and the campus day-care center.

The fifth floor could be mistaken for a lab building in any college, with its white linoleum tile flecked with black and its harsh fluorescent lights. Turning into Hallway 5D, a visitor passes a locked room with a radiation warning--and a new handwritten sign: “This door stays shut. All the time. AND LOCKED.” After the contamination incident, the NIH tightened its radiation handling rules; all materials must be locked up, even if a scientist is leaving the lab only momentarily.

Room 5D18 is an L-shaped office with a few tables for computers and a central bench for experimental work. As you enter the lab, the computers used by Ma and her husband, Bill Wenling Zheng, sit on a desk to the right, idle--the FBI removed the hard drives--just outside the door to John Weinstein’s private office. Down Corridor D is a bare spot where the contaminated water cooler once stood.

Ma and Zheng came to Weinstein’s lab in 1994. They were academic stars in China; Ma was named one of the 100 outstanding young scientists in her country. Being named to two-year fellowships at the NIH could be a ticket to a prestigious career upon their return to China, or perhaps a new life in America.

In affidavits, the administrative filing, in press releases and previous interviews, Ma and Zheng, and their lawyers, paint a picture of slavish working conditions straight out of Dickens.

Weinstein’s lab works to develop therapies for treating cancer and AIDS, part of a massive cancer-drug screening program. This is the unglamorous work of institutional science: an effort to test some 10,000 potentially curative compounds a year against 60 types of cancerous cells. It’s a little like taking the world’s largest key ring and testing each key on every door you can find--and then taking the information you learn to make better keys. P-32 is used as a tracer: When it is injected into a cell, it allows a scientist to follow the functions of that cell by detecting the path of radiation.

Weinstein put Zheng and Ma to work on a project begun by a previous postdoctoral student, and he applied to the NIH patent office to begin the paperwork to patent the process they were developing; Ma’s and Zheng’s names were included on the application, a fact Weinstein finds significant. It was their process, too, he said: They stood to benefit from any commercial application of it.

They said that when they announced Ma’s pregnancy to their boss on June 11, he became upset and pressured her to have an abortion to keep her work on schedule and their patent viable. They said Weinstein continued to pressure them, and after an “unpleasant” meeting Sunday, June 25, the couple invited him out to lunch at a Rockville Chinese restaurant, Tony Lin’s. Ma took the leftovers home.

After eating the remaining shrimp and fish dish at the lab three days later, Ma said, she felt a sharp pain in her “liver area”; a routine sweep of the lab for radiation the next day revealed Ma’s contamination and a spot of radiation in front of the refrigerator in conference room 5C25, where the Chinese food had been stored. The contaminant was quickly identified as P-32, commonly used at the NIH--but not used in Ma and Zheng’s experiments since earlier that year.

Ma has called the experience “a nightmare.”

That is the only statement Weinstein agrees with. He, too, called it “a nightmare” during an interview at the office of his attorney, Fred Joseph.

Weinstein denies that he ever pressured his scientists to abort their child or that he dosed Ma: “The obvious answer is, of course not. It’s preposterous.”

Joseph calls the accusations against his client “disgraceful” and says, “I hope they have libel and slander insurance.”

Puzzling Pieces

Like a Rubik’s Cube with pieces missing, no amount of twisting and turning makes the case fit. Ma’s reported pain in her side has not been reported in radiation exposure cases--even with exposures many times higher than Ma’s.

Patients with the blood disease polycythemia vera are treated with five times the amount of P-32 Ma’s lawyers contend she received and report no pain. Dr. Anthony R. Scialli, head of reproductive toxicology at Columbia Hospital for Women and an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Georgetown, said any pain she might have felt “would not be from the radiation.” Neither Ma nor Zheng nor their lawyers have explained why they believe the food was the source of Ma’s contamination.

(In an article to the Cancer Letter, a scientific newsletter, analyst Anthony Fainberg, an expert in the safety of nuclear materials, suggested another explanation for Ma’s symptoms: “It does not take a rocket scientist to see that anyone who eats 3-day-old shrimp may be susceptible to gastric distress, particularly in the second trimester of pregnancy.”)

Although the pressures the petition describes accurately reflect the poisonous atmosphere at some laboratories at the NIH and elsewhere, people who have worked with Weinstein say that it doesn’t describe him or his lab.

As news of the accusations came to light, Weinstein asked former researchers from his lab to write testimonials. The letters came from former colleagues from India, Hungary, Ghana and elsewhere. They speak of vacations Weinstein approved without question, small kindnesses and careful shepherding of his researchers’ careers.

None is as eloquent as that of Charles Perry, a biology teacher and basketball coach at McKinley High School in Washington, D.C. In an interview, Perry was almost shouting as he defended and praised Weinstein, in whose lab he worked for eight weeks last summer through a program that helps bring minority teachers to the NIH. Perry recalled that during his fellowship--at the very time that Weinstein was supposedly obsessed with completing the Ma experiment--one of Perry’s basketball players was injured in a drive-by shooting. Weinstein “was very concerned,” Perry said. “He constantly asked me for information; he sent a card. He didn’t have to do none of that, but he did.”

The Legal Laboratory

Even though Ma has hired three attorneys--Lynne Bernabei, Debra Katz and Judith Wolfer--neither she nor her husband has sued the NIH or Weinstein. The only action filed so far in this case: a petition to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to yank the NIH’s license to handle radioactive materials.

Bernabei suggests more actions will be filed. She said the couple had to exhaust administrative remedies first.

Bernabei cited several incidents in recent years in which the NIH has been warned by the NRC about proper storage and accounting of radioactive materials--despite what she called the NRC’s natural inclination to protect its “sister agency” from strict regulation.

But earlier this month, the NRC rejected the license revocation request, saying that even though it had found “certain weaknesses” in NIH’s program, they were not “sufficiently widespread or egregious” to justify such a drastic remedy. But a more general NRC review is ongoing.

NRC officials said the NIH has a good safety record--especially considering the thousands of scientists who work with radioactive materials in the 3,000 labs and 50 buildings on the campus.

Had Ma’s request been granted, “the work that we are doing would grind to a halt,” said Michael Gottesman, director of the on-campus research program at the NIH. About 80% of NIH labs depend on radioisotopes for everything from diagnosing and treating disease to tracking the functioning of genes.

The Age of O.J.

Much of the tone for Ma’s case has been set by her lead counsels, the team of Bernabei and Katz. They combine legal advocacy with political activism. They have represented whistle-blowers in cases against the nuclear industry and have sued the NIH in a sex discrimination case.

They are also a law firm that flourishes in the Age of O.J., when good media coverage can be as important as solid evidence. They commonly hold news conferences when they take on a new case. The noisy practice builds the kind of pressure on defendants that often leads to quiet settlements of cases.

An October news conference at the National Press Club was a classic Bernabei and Katz production. Their release read: “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.”

Asked to substantiate that, Katz cited her radiation expert, David Dooley of Buffalo. But in an interview, Dooley said there has been one other case involving substantially more radiation. “I think what they were trying to do there was give the media, because they knew about the Silkwood case, a reference point.”

Ma and Zheng would not speak with the Washington Post for this story, or waive the confidentiality restrictions for anyone who treated them. Bernabei said that is because they had made an arrangement for exclusive coverage with “60 Minutes.” Ma and Zheng’s colleagues at the lab also declined to comment, citing the ongoing legal action, but described the husband-wife team as “very friendly.”

Bernabei and Katz have bitterly disputed the NIH’s estimates of Ma’s radiation exposure, charging that it constitutes a cover-up. When the contamination was announced, NIH officials said Ma had taken in 200 to 300 microcuries of P-32; a microcurie is a measure of the radioactive activity. Later estimates by the NRC, which examined her, put the figure at double that amount. Ma’s attorneys now claim that the amount was closer to 1,000 microcuries.

Exposure limits are generally set in REMs, a measure of radioactive effects. Limits for pregnant women are set far lower than for other women; 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 a REM.

Toxicologist Scialli said a 6.4 REM dose would almost certainly not harm a fetus. “I would tell a woman coming in with that amount of exposure that her chance of having a baby with an abnormality is not increased compared to that of a woman without radiation exposure.” The 18-day half-life for P-32 in the body, and ordinary excretion, also mean that Ma’s radioactive experience will be relatively brief.

The TV Take

On Oct. 24, for a segment that has not yet aired, “60 Minutes” came to call at the NIH. Reporter Steve Kroft did a stand-up in 5D18, at the table where the contamination was first noted. The crew filmed Ma on a long walk across the plaza formed by buildings 35, 36 and 37, passing by the day-care center, repeating the long walk several times for the cameras. A few researchers looked down from their windows, but the celebrities were ignored, for the most part.

“The level of interest is a whole lot lower than a lot of people would like to think it is,” said an NIH safety official. “I think that most people working in this environment are relatively intelligent and say, ‘This is god-awful stupid, and I hope whoever did it gets caught and goes to jail. Having said that, let’s get on with it.’ ”