Detecting the Undetectable: Radiation

When people hear the word “radiation” or “radioactive” they generally get worried. Radiation is something that people can’t see, smell, taste, hear or feel, but is real which makes it very scary.

At my work at EPA, I deal with addressing technical issues associated with radiation sites from cradle to grave, performing human health risk assessments, providing technical support to emergency responses, participating in the development of national guidance, participating in counterterrorism emergency response exercises associated with Radiological Dispersal Devices (dirty bombs), such as the EMPIRE 09 exercise in Albany a couple of months ago, and participating in public meetings to address radiation technical issues. I couldn’t do any of this if we didn’t have devices and instruments that can “sense” and measure radiation.

We use state of the art technologies for radiation site investigations and emergency responses. Some of the instruments are stored within our region. We can get larger specialized equipment from our EPA colleagues in Radiation and Indoor Environments National Laboratory located in Las Vegas, the National Air and Radiation Environmental Laboratory in Montgomery, Alabama, and the Environmental Response Team and National Decontamination Team located in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Such technologies include everything from handheld devices for surface and subsurface investigations, to larger monitoring vehicles like the RIENL Scanner Van and Environmental Radiation Gamma Scanner (ERGS), to NDT’s airplane, the Airborne Spectral Photometric Environmental Collection Technology (ASPECT). These instruments provide data that help us answer important questions, like those on the amount of radiation, the type of radiation and the location of the radioactive material.

Recently the ERGS, which measures gamma radiation several feet below the ground surface, was utilized to survey approximately 200 acres of land. This provided the project with both cost and time savings. The ASPECT was recently deployed to support the EMPIRE Exercise and also conducted gamma radiation flyover survey over two radiation sites in my area.

Explaining radiation is sometimes challenging, yet essential for public awareness. At times, the challenge is encountered because some of the audience is working off assumptions and has their mind set before coming to the meeting as opposed to others who are willing to listen and learn. Regardless of the different types of audience, I believe that we need to reach out further in educating the public in radiation because it is hard to understand something that requires special instruments to detect.

About the Author: Nidal Azzam joined the EPA Region 2 New York office in 2003 as a senior health physicist. Nidal provides technical support on radioactively contaminated sites, radiation emergency responses, and on the development of multi-agency guidance to protect the public and the environment from the harmful effects of ionizing radiation.

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