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What The Heck Is Health Physics?

2009 September 29

The name sounds like it is all about pendulums and inclined planes, but it is really about radiation protection. The most entertaining story about the origin of the job description “health physicist” is that it came about during the “Manhattan Project” when scientists needed to protect themselves from the radioactive materials they used. According to the story, the term, “health physicist” was chosen to be an intentionally confusing description to disguise the work on the atomic bomb.

Over the last 60 years, health physics has developed into an important and complex scientific discipline and profession. There are entire university degree programs devoted to it as well as professional-level certification. In keeping with the confusing name, health physicists have many confusing terms and units such as rem, rad, roentgen, effective dose equivalent, and committed dose, just to name a few. If that weren’t confusing enough, health physicists also use the international system of units (kind of like the metric system).

Today many health physicists work in nuclear power plants, hospitals and industries, all places where radiation is used. Some also work at EPA, since EPA is the primary Federal agency charged with protecting the public from the harmful effects of radiation. Many of them became involved in health physics because they were interested in the science of radiation. I once had a manager tell me that health physicists were unique at EPA because they were the only ones who “thought their pollutant was cool.”

I think the hardest job health physicists have is explaining radiation to the public and to other scientists at the EPA. We know a lot about radiation, but for low level radiation exposure, there is a lot that we need to assume and estimate, and many areas where the science is not clear. I usually start out my discussions about radiation by reminding people that this is a radioactive world.

Did you know that the reason the Earth’s core is still molten after 4.5 billion years is that the long-lived radioactive decay in the core keeps it hot? Without that molten core, Earth would not have a magnetic field, and without a magnetic field the solar wind would have blown away our atmosphere long ago (like Mars). And of course without an atmosphere, Earth would be a lifeless rock. So in a way, radioactivity is the reason there is life on Earth. Health physicists think that is cool–just ask one.

About the Author: Richard Poeton is a health physicist. He started his career with EPA while studying for his MS in radiological science at Oregon State University. Richard is professionally certified by the American Board of Health Physics, and has more than 30 years of experience in radiation protection. He has worked in the EPA Region 10 Seattle office since 1991 and is currently the radiation program manager there.

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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9 Responses leave one →
  1. Christina S. permalink
    September 29, 2009

    I smiled when I saw this blog. My father was a health physicist for many years. He retired in the early 1990s.

    Christina S.

  2. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    September 30, 2009

    Radiation is something we need to continue to have life on earth. But what is a concern is man made radiation that could come from things like leaks at nuclear power plants, storm runoff from uranium miles, and leaks from nuclear fuel rod manufacturing or disposing. The man made radiation can cause changes in genes and could cause different forms of cancer. So it must be controlled. I am glad EPA is on top of this. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

  3. Tom P permalink
    September 30, 2009

    As someone who has worked in the health physics field for almost 2 decades now, I can honestly say our work is largely misunderstood, and the hardest battle is definitely explaining things to the public for sure…

  4. sara permalink
    November 18, 2009

    Great post!
    I want to give add one more thing that “AntiGravity Yoga”. AntiGravity Yoga is a fitness regime designed to increase one’s overall health and physical agility while having fun and creating beauty. It acts like a swing or soft trapeze. The AntiGravity Hammock is utilized to change one’s dynamic relationship to the ground, allowing the participant to better understand their body and its relationship to physics.

  5. Tanya permalink
    February 4, 2010

    Wow! I am a personal trainer too, in Canberra Australia.
    The thought of trying to do fitness training without gravity kind of boggles my mind. Hard to do weights without weight!!??

  6. Nancy permalink
    March 10, 2010

    I have heard of another explanation for naming it Health Physics….some guy with the initials HP was instrumental in the development of the field and it was thought up in his honor. I want to say that his name was something like Harry Parker but haven’t found out anything on the internet that alludes to him.

  7. Norma Riter permalink
    September 24, 2011

    I have read this article though have a different slant on the original story. Though the term Health Physicist “was” probably confusing I hardly believe this was a created intention. It is plausible it became the by-product. You have to take into account the times they were in, during Manhattan Project days — this was a brand new field of study and the notion that radiation was even dangerous, was in its infancy. The original pioneering physicist recognized the need for this type of health professional, as they started to understand the effects of unprotected exposure to certain radiation levels. Thus this new career was born. They were not sophisticated enough at the time to just be using this as a cover or counter-intelligence item. Put another way, “everyone” was confused at this time, no one needed “extra confusion.”

    Now the last paragraph, this is fascinating. The astronomy angle is fabulous. What is also neat is how we are “still” learning more about radiation effects every day. During the Manhattan Project people assumed radiation to be bad, bad, and more bad. Now, they know that this fall out, including at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there were equal amounts of amazing health benefits, including lower incidents of cancer and expanded lifespan. I am certain that radiation may be key to travel, medicine, longevity, mind-expansion, etc. Keep these posts coming, you have a large audience with us. It happens to right now be one of the “favorites” on our site.

    I came here by way of a portion of our website that has started to use this site as their primary EPA information and have many links into these articles and trackbacks. Interestingly I am not seeing one such link or comment posted here. Perhaps someone removed them as well. I am an employee of Trip, and find it difficult to impossible to believe anything was said to get the comments banned as they are so serious about these issues. Anyone with knowledge of the commenting policy let us know. If our company violated protocol we will eliminate this information and articles from our website immediately. We have emailed EPA upper management though they are silent. Please Note: Editor, you may wish to delete just this last paragraph, if issue is resolved, as to reduce unnecessary “noise” on the post comments. Sincerely, Norma R.Vice President of Trip Articles,Inc.

  8. June 13, 2012

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    It’s really sensitive topic to talk with children.So we must have suitable way to communicate this issue.I think education in school will help us solve this problem

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    February 15, 2014

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