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Science Notebook: On the Mind of a Modern Day Health Physicist

2009 April 24

About the Author: Mike Boyd joined EPA in 1988 as a health physicist in what is now the Office of Radiation and Indoor Air. Health physics is the profession of radiation protection. Mike’s work at EPA focuses on radiation risk assessment.  He helps develop federal guidance, the rules and regulations that protect the American public from the harmful effects of radiation.

image of author sittingHealth physics is a term most people don’t understand. People often guess that my job has something to do with physical therapy. Actually, the term was coined during the Manhattan Project – a national effort to develop the first atomic weapon during World War II.

There are several stories about how the term originated. I like the one that says that “health physics” was chosen over “radiation protection” because it “conveyed nothing.” The Manhattan Project was very secretive, so a name that disguised any association with radiation would be appropriate. I imagine someone in charge saying, “Some of you physicists need to design the protective shielding for this project and some of you need to monitor worker exposure. Raise your hand if you want to be our health physicists.” Maybe it didn’t happen just that way, but it could have!

As fascinated as I am by the challenges facing these first health physicists, their work has little resemblance to what I do today with EPA. Radioactive elements are commonly found in nature. Since there is no such thing as “zero radiation,” how do we determine how safe is “safe” and how clean is “clean?” These are the questions I deal with.

This raises an interesting question. After a radiological emergency, should “clean” be a constant, or should it depend on a larger context? Is “clean” the same for a major nuclear incident in a large city as for a small scale event in a rural area? What if it means abandoning a city? Will people accept an increased lifetime cancer risk to be able to get back to their homes and livelihood? There is no easy answer.

Chernobyl teaches us that some people will try to go back home no matter what the radiation levels and risks. Others will stay away, no matter how low the levels eventually reach. My personal opinion is that it is best to approach such situations on a case-by-case basis, hoping, of course, that there is never even one such case. We have benchmarks to begin the process of determining clean-up levels, including the history of what was achieved at radiation-contaminated sites around the country.

We cannot know in advance what emergency managers may face in the future, but we know that no decision regarding cleanup will mean anything without serious public involvement. These are just some thoughts of one EPA health physicist. I’d like to hear what you think!

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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One Response leave one →
  1. Russell Bimber permalink
    August 21, 2009

    The Diamond Magnesium Plant near Painesville, OH has radioactivity related to the FUSRAP Program. It was built during WWIIby a team of engineers from the Austin Company, headed by Carl Newhous, now deceased, who was a neighbor and friend of mine. The plant was given a lot of drums contaminated by “Yellow Cake” to be dissolved in waste hydrochloric acid and flushed into a nearby alkaline waste lake from the Solvay Process soda ash plant of the Diamond Alkali Company (later Diamond Shamrock). This would have diluted and dispersed the radioactivity. Instead, the workers didn;t like the yellow dust in the drums, so habitually bounced the open end of the open head drums on the ground at two locations where railroad cars were unloaded. This reconcentrated the radioactive material which was found much later by an aerial radiation survey.
    When the Army Corps of engineers got involved, they initially expected to find all the radioactivity near the surface, because uranium oxide isn’t very soluble in rainwater. But the ground here was already strongly alkaline from decades of soda ash manufacture, so the uranium oxide was converted to a water- soluble salt (sodium uranate). I tried to explain this to a man at their Buffalo office, but never got any comment back. I’m now living outside the local area, but a friend sent me a recent clipping from the Lake County, OH News-Herald, saying they were planning to try again, because previous attempts still hadn’t removed the radioactivity well enough.
    I’m an amateur rockhound, and have found yellow seams of radioactive (yellow cake?) in fractured seams of rock, which I believed were from potash from forest fires transporting uranium minerals in solution until other rock minerals reduced the alkalinity to redeposit them as yellow cake.
    Also, after I retired from Diamond,I canoed down the Grand River, past banks comprised of Diamond’s wastes, and used my canoe paddle to reach up to take a small sample I suspected of being contaminated by sodium chromate from Diamond’s Chromium Chemicals Plant (built by Carl Newhous and part of the team that built the Magnesium Plant, as Diamond employees). I added a water extract of this sample to a lead acetate solution, but did not confirm the presence of soluble chromate. I didn’t check the sample for radioactivity.

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