Alpha, Beta, Gamma, OH MY! Challenges In The Radiation World

Although I have been surrounded by radiation my entire life, it wasn’t until 2003, when I began my doctorate work, that I entered the “radiation world.” Since that time I have learned so much about radiation and realize there is much more to learn. I have also come to recognize a variety of challenges that exist in the radiation world.

Despite being surrounded by naturally occurring radiation, very few people really understand it. This is just one challenge we, radiation professionals, need to address. Other challenges include understanding the unique behavior of each radioactive element (or radionuclide), the various areas of study within the field of radiation, the multiple uses of radiation in our society, the fear of radiation, and the decreasing workforce knowledgeable in the field of radiation.

Some areas of radiation work include understanding: the fate and transport of radionuclides (how they behave in water, soil, air); biological effects of radiation (effects on human health); how to prepare, prevent and respond to radiation emergencies; how to set protective regulatory limits; and how to use radiation as a benefit to society (medicine, energy…).

Each radionuclide exhibits unique biological, chemical, and physical properties. What does this mean? It means that different radionuclides behave differently in various media (soil, water, air) as well as in the human body. Radionuclides also have unique radiological properties, such as the type of radioactive decay (alpha, beta, gamma) or the length of time they will be around before being transformed into a stable (non radioactive) element. Fully understanding the world of radiation means understanding all of these things for multiple radionuclides; what a challenge!

Another challenge is addressing the fear of radiation while improving the public’s general knowledge of radiation. EPA is meeting this challenge through various radiation education products like RadTown USA.

It will be increasingly difficult to increase public knowledge without the right staff. The number of radiation professionals is not growing at the rate it should be. More students need to be encouraged to not only study STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) areas, but also to specialize in one of the diverse fields of radiation.

As an Engineer at EPA, I look forward to meeting all of these challenges head on, learning more about radiation and working to get the word out about radiation, educating people about the role of radiation in their daily lives, and encouraging them to join the “radiation world.”

About the Author: Dr. Angelique D. Diaz joined EPA in June of 2008 after completing her Ph.D., where she studied the behavior of plutonium in the environment. Dr. Diaz is an Environmental Engineer working at EPA’s Region 8 office in Denver, CO, where she works on a variety of radiological-related activities, including regulating radon emissions from uranium mines and mills.

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