Radiation and Radioactivity

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

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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Science Notebook: I’m Not in Kansas Anymore – Confessions of a Radiation Communicator

About the Author: Jessica Wieder is a communications specialist with EPA’s Radiation Protection Program and member of EPA’s Radiological Emergency Response Team. When not doing emergency response work, she helps develop radiation education products like EPA’s RadTown USA.

image of authorIt is 2004 and I am a proud University of Maryland Terrapin senior, majoring in communications and minoring in British and American literature. I am jumping up and down in my dorm room because I just got an offer to work for EPA’s Radiation Protection Division.

Did I ever think I would work for EPA? No.
Do I know anything about radiation? No.
Do I care at this moment? No. I GOT A JOB!

My very first assignment is to “play” in an emergency response exercise called Ruby Slippers. The exercise scenario involves a satellite crashing in Kansas (hence Ruby Slippers) and scattering pieces of its radioactive power source across the state. The power source is called a radioisotope thermoelectric generator. (Try saying that five times fast)

image of person from the back in an orange vest with information officer labelMy role in this exercise is Assistant Public Information Officer. My job is to help communicate EPA’s role during a radiological emergency, potential health effects from radiation exposure, and protective action decisions.

NOW do I care that I don’t know anything about radiation? You better believe it!

With two weeks to prepare, I turn to my new coworkers for help. This is what I learned: 1) Many radiation health physicists communicate well with each other – not so well with non-techies, 2) My coworkers have amazing patience for, what I assume are, some pretty stupid questions, like “What is a gamma spectrometer and do I really need to know this?” 3) Radiation is a difficult topic to understand and even harder to explain, and 4) This job isn’t going to be easy.

You will be happy to know that I survived the exercise and have been with EPA for almost five years. Communicating radiation information to the public continues to be rewarding and challenging. Just last week I learned that “to frisk” in radiation terms means to use radiation detection instruments to scan a person for contamination, as opposed to an intrusive pat down. (I would hate to be the nuclear power plant worker to make that mistake.)

Looking back, it was my first assignment that made this job a career. I learned that the question isn’t “Do I care?” but “WHY do I care?” The answer is why I love my job: Because it is the knowledge of the experts, the science behind decisions and the technology we use that protects the people. It is communicating that information that empowers people to protect themselves.

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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Science Notebook: Innovation and Improving Emergency Response Capabilities

About the author: Jed Harrison’s research background dates back to 1974, starting in agriculture, then indoor air quality. Since 1992, Jed has been Director of EPA’s Radiation & Indoor Environments National Laboratory (R&IE) in Las Vegas. Jed oversees several programs including the western contingent of the EPA’s Radiological Emergency Response Team (RERT).

image of authorOne of the things that makes us special as a Radiation Laboratory and Response Team is that we’re radiation measurement specialists. In the event of a radiation incident, our lab has an important role in determining the extent of the contamination, characterizing that area, and ensuring a successful decontamination and cleanup. We do this by using our specialized field and lab-based measurement capabilities.

Responding to a radiation disaster, we may be working on a scale that exceeds anything that EPA has ever experienced. We will be under great pressure to work quickly and effectively so that people’s lives can get back to normal as fast as possible. Our goals will be to get people back in their homes with access to safe food and water and to see local businesses reopen so that people can return to work and school. The ability of local economies to recover will depend upon the success of small businesses to get back on their feet, and time will become an enemy.

image of two women adjusting a portable radiation monitorSo, a large focus of the R&IE laboratory has been on developing methods, tools, and capabilities that can increase our speed and efficiency, without sacrificing the measurement quality needed to make good decisions. I believe that EPA will have the greatest success by shifting the proportion of our measurement efforts toward field-based analysis using real time instruments, and rapid methods using field lab capabilities.

Decades of field experience – at contaminated sites and emergency responses – has helped us evolve. This yields capabilities like R&IE’s scanning systems that integrate real-time radiation monitoring systems, G.P.S., and wireless data communication. Mounted in trucks, all-wheel drive tractors and portable “buggies,” these systems allow us to cover large areas quickly, collecting a great “density of data” which can be viewed in a map format and superimposed over aerial images. This greatly simplifies data interpretation, allowing us to make better decisions faster.

image of all wheel tractor & portable buggie

As a Lab Director, it’s my job to keep our laboratory capable and relevant. We’re always looking for better ways to do our work, and opportunities to partner with others. We may never have all the resources that we would like to have; we realize we have to “work smarter.” By partnering with our colleagues on the RERT, EPA’s On Scene Coordinators, and EPA’s Environmental Response Team and National Decontamination Team, good ideas are created. These ideas are based on real world experience and foresight which become seeds of continual improvement and innovation.

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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Science Notebook: Radiation Emergency Response – From the Field

About the author: Gregg Dempsey is an EPA Radiological Emergency Response Team commander and has been with EPA more than 21 years. His job involves being an internal consultant to EPA on radiation issues and being a field response person for radiation emergencies.

image of author pointing to flowchartIf you’ve ever worried about some of the strange new terms that have been in the media since September 11, 2001, like ‘dirty bomb’, ‘radiation dispersal device’ and ‘improvised nuclear device’, you’re not alone. I worry about them too. But my worry is probably a little different than yours; I am part of a group of people who might have to monitor and cleanup the radiation from these types of events.

EPA deals with small radiation problems across the country all the time. They range from transportation accidents to cleanup at abandoned facilities. We work well with our state and local counterparts, and other Federal agencies to get the job done and remove dangerous radiation from our environment.

The smaller problems turn out to be mostly local issues, but they provide valuable lessons for larger accidents and incidents. You learn just how complicated measuring radiation can be, and how complicated it is to determine when you must act and when you might not need to act. Everyone agrees that high levels of radiation exposure are dangerous. It’s the lower levels that spark a huge debate. The debate ranges from questions such as ‘is my health at risk?’, ‘do we leave it here or must we clean it up?’ or ‘are these low levels still a danger?’ Depending on who you talk to, the answers are quite different. In my job, I try to help answer these questions.

I am unfortunately fortunate; I’ve been to and worked at a vast number of radiation cleanup sites across the United States, and I’ve participated in so many emergency response exercises that I’ve lost count. I’ve also been up close and personal at the Chernobyl accident site in Ukraine several times, and I have seen the devastation of wide spread contamination in the environment and how that accident affected its citizens. I try to bring that experience back to EPA.

The Radiological Emergency Response Team (RERT), of which I am a member, is one of many specialized technical teams in EPA. I’m often asked to provide help and advice on radiation issues in the field. That is, how to prevent, measure, clean up and protect people from needless radiation exposure. We train a lot, we maintain a good response capability, and we help where we can.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.