When Technical Folks Don’t Understand Radiation…

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.