Johns Hopkins Gazette: July 24, 1995

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

     "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

     "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

     "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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