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When Technical Folks Don’t Understand Radiation…

2009 September 8

I started out as a radiation “novice” and had to be trained; therefore I understand the difficulty in explaining radiation concepts. I always try to make explanations as simple and as accurate as possible given the complexity of and mythology behind radiation.

As a regional member of EPA’s Radiological Emergency Response Team, my role as a Regional Liaison is to enhance coordination and communication between my region and the rest of EPA’s responders during a radiological emergency. One of my responsibilities will be to help staff members who are not familiar with radiation concepts to understand them and to communicate them to the public. You might think that since many of our people are scientists or engineers, that they would already understand radiation. That’s not the case. Often, radiation is just as mysterious to many of our staff as it is to the public. That’s where we come in.

Unfortunately, most people just don’t know much about radiation. Our movies and comic books, which present radiation as being able to create monsters or superheroes or to be deadly in even the smallest amounts, have created a great misunderstanding about what it is and what it isn’t.

We had an exercise recently in which we pretended that a “dirty bomb” spread radioactivity over an area. One part of the exercise had people saying that they had “radiation sickness” (i.e. they had been exposed to an amount of radiation which would make them sick to their stomachs). I had to explain to our staff that this was impossible. The amount of radiation we had determined to have been released could not have created that effect – it was just too small. However, people could be so worried about getting sick that they could indeed have made themselves sick. My statements were greeted skeptically until I showed them the tables describing that radiation sickness symptoms occur at radiation levels thousands of times greater than had been released in our pretend situation.

There are many other concepts people need to understand as well, such as: being exposed to radiation doesn’t make you or your possessions radioactive forever; you can remove radioactive contamination by washing with soap and water; and that being exposed to radiation won’t turn you into a monster or a superhero. I think that Spiderman is everyone’s favorite character who got his powers from radiation. I know that I would like his powers, but I’m afraid of heights so I could only swing from short buildings!

About the Author: Shelly Rosenblum started out in Marine Biology and Engineering. The engineering took him to the Mare Island Naval Shipyard on San Francisco Bay where he was trained in principles of radiation, radiation protection and measurement. Shelly works in Region 9, where he began his work speaking to the public about radon and developing the Radionuclide NESHAP program.

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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6 Responses leave one →
  1. Joe permalink
    September 8, 2009

    May I have a question?
    Water from a well has measured level of Radium isotops to be 9-10 which is over standard 5 units. What are obligations of Water Company to correct this situation? I understand there are systems of filtration to be used.

  2. Shelly Rosenblum permalink
    September 8, 2009

    That’s a question for our drinking water folks. Send me your contact information and I’ll try to find the right person to get back to you.

    Shelly Rosenblum
    EPA / Region 9

  3. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    September 9, 2009

    One of the big problems with nuclear power plants is what happens if there is an equipment malfunction or error on the part of the operators. There were problems at Three Mile Island and at Cherynoble. I’m very glad we do have experts in radiation as part of a national emergency response team if something like Three Mile Island were to happen again. I am also glad we are moving toward alternative sources of power that don’t involve more nuclear power. It would be great if we could build power plants powered by hydrogen fuel with solar energy used to manufacture the hydrogen for the plant, and the plant be big enough to generate enough power for a town or city. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

  4. Christina S. permalink
    September 9, 2009

    Hi Shelly-

    I’m so glad to read about your work. Sounds like you have plenty to keep you busy! My father was a health physicist for a state department of health for many years so I learned about radiation at a relatively young age. Then came the Three Mile Island accident and all of the press hysteria that went along with it. We lived downstream from the reactor in Southern York County. My father’s response was to go outside with his geiger counter to check ambient radiation levels. My Dad strongly influenced my career choice – I ended up working for EPA – for another office that has nothing to do with radiation. I’m probably one of a handful of EPA staffers with this type of background.

    Thanks for the work you do.

    Christina S.

  5. Luise Light permalink
    September 9, 2009

    Although radiation poisoning may only be caused by exposure to massive amounts of radiation, it takes much less to affect immunity, fertility, health status and body weight. In the last decade we have seen the doubling of rates of obesity and diabetes in our country at all ages. The current pandemics of obesity and diabetes have been attributed, at least in part, to the drift of radiation from DU (depleted uranium munitions) used on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, contaminating our (and the world’s) air, food and water.

    What is EPA doing to study this critical matter and to protect the public health?

  6. Jackenson Durand permalink
    September 12, 2009

    Radiation could be produce anywhere suddenly. I experienced radioactivity history at my work place (Hosp.), Where a cookie plastic attached to my body, refused to leave it. After a while, i discovered that i exposed to Radioactivity. In fact, everyday we could be in invisible Radioacitivity.

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