Moving Beyond 'Duck and Cover' Mike Field --------------- Staff Writer Blame the 1950s. It was an era that turned out scores of low-cost monster movies based on the premise that nuclear radiation--the new terror of modern society--could cause horrific genetic mutations to threaten human civilization as we know it. Ants the size of tractor-trailers. Giant lizardlike creatures invading Tokyo. An oozing, devouring blob. The list goes on and on. At a time when diseases of all types were retreating against a seemingly endless array of new wonder drugs, when hunger--at least in America--was all but vanquished and the promise of the good life seemed open to more and more individuals, radiation found a unique role as the newest rider of the apocalypse. Invisible. Silent. And, it was thought, invariably deadly. There was no treatment, no cure and little the average person could do except duck and cover--and wait patiently for the inevitable catastrophe that exposure to this new lurking menace would bring. To a surprising extent, this legacy of radiation phobia-- inspired by the very real horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but nurtured in public opinion by books and articles and "B" movies-- continues to this day. And from time to time, it makes Bill Biggley's job quite difficult. Biggley is the radiation safety officer for the Homewood campus. Together with Mina Razavi, the campus radiation safety department's senior technician, they are responsible for seeing that the relatively minuscule amounts of ionizing radiation used for some types of research on campus are used safely, effectively and with minimal likelihood of accidental contamination of people, labs and equipment. So far, they are doing an excellent job of it. "The philosophy we have developed over many years of experience is that there is no reason to have any exposure whatsoever," Biggley said. "As long as people use basic safety precautions and use their common sense, there is no reason to believe we will have any significant problems in the future." The last time the Homewood campus had any significant radiation mishap was in 1967, when an accidental release of tritium forced the three-day closure of Rowland (now Krieger) Hall. Radiation safety--more than fire and chemical exposure, which injure and kill far greater numbers each year--is an important issue to many members of the public. Concerns about the safety of the transportation and storage of both high-level nuclear wastes (such as spent nuclear power plant fuel rods) and of low-level contaminants (such as might be produced in a research lab) have stymied federal efforts to develop long-term storage facilities for several years now. On the Homewood campus, Biggley's chief concern is not storage (most of the radioactive isotopes used in research decay to harmless materials quite quickly) but exposure. The chief focus of the radiation safety office's efforts is to prevent the accidental handling, close proximity to or ingestion of radioactive materials. Biggley and Razavi use two approaches to monitor and ensure safety. In the radiation safety lab in the basement of McCauley Hall, Razavi keeps detailed records of every researcher on campus who comes in contact with radioactive materials. Two highly sensitive machines--one to measure radioactive iodine uptake in the thyroid and the other to look for beta-isotopes in individual urine samples--are used to monitor researchers and lab workers for contamination on a regular basis. A less sensitive test requires radiation users to wear special badges that hold a clip of dental X-ray film. The film is periodically developed and analyzed for radiation exposure. "We have perhaps 200 people on campus who do research involving radioactive materials," Razavi said. "One of my jobs is to keep track of all of them to periodically assess if any exposure has occurred." But the thrust of the radiation safety program is aimed not at discovery, but prevention. "Because we are a relatively small campus, one luxury we have is that we can talk directly to everyone who uses radioactivity," Biggley said. "While the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says an allowable exposure is up to 5,000 milirems per year, we're suggesting that 100 milirems is a more realistic--and achievable--target for our researchers. This is essentially equal to the normal background radiation that all of us are exposed to in the natural environment. Our belief is that on this campus, with the work our researchers are doing, there is no reason anyone should surpass that amount." Thyroid screening, urinalysis and film badge dosemeter records over the past several years support Biggley's claim. "Part of the reason has to do with the kinds of materials our researchers handle," Razavi said. "We're mostly talking about biomedical research using relatively small amounts of short-lived isotopes. With better testing equipment less radioactive materials are required. Plus, more and more of them are available in catalogs, where in the past they often had to be synthesized in the lab, which involved more material and more handling." Each year, some 700 to 800 shipments of radioactive materials are recorded by the radiation safety office, which has the responsibility for monitoring and tracking all such materials arriving at the Homewood campus. Yet despite their impressive safety record, Biggley says there are some students and researchers who remain suspicious and uncomfortable. "Everyone is afraid of radioactivity," he said. "There are some who come to our training course and make it clear they would prefer not to work with these materials." His job is not to persuade them otherwise, but simply to realistically apprise them of the risks involved. "Generally, if we can explain it well enough and they really understand what these numbers [exposure levels] stand for, they shouldn't have any problems. This is all pretty low level stuff." The potential for accidental contamination is very real though, and Biggley does not entirely discount the possibility of sabotage, as may have happened recently at the National Institutes of Health. According to a July 18 article in the Washington Post, as many as 26 workers--including a woman four months pregnant--were exposed to radiation, possibly from a water cooler found contaminated with phosphorus 32. Officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the FBI have been involved in the investigation since the contamination was discovered on June 28. "The biggest challenge in this line of work is relating risk factors to the general public," Biggley said. "This is a predicament shared by everyone in the industry." While ionizing radiation--which has the potential of inflicting biological and genetic damage--is unquestionably dangerous, the amount of actual damage directly correlates to the level of exposure received. Which is why the radiation safety office promotes the ALARA philosophy. "ALARA means As Low As Reasonably Achievable, and that's our goal," Biggley said. "In the past 25 to 30 years we haven't had any serious exposures, and based on my experience, there's no reason not to believe that we can't continue to do it. So far, the risks involved on this campus have been minimal. That's just where we want to keep it."
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