Irrational fear of radiation



During 1964, I visited CIRUS, the research reactor at Trombay for

the first time. I was then atrainee. at the Atomic Energy Establishment

Trombay (AEET)  training school.  Before allowing us into the reactor

hall, the Health Physicist in-charge dutifully handed over to me a direct

reading dosimeter, the type you clip on toyour shirt. I had mixed feelings.

There was a tinge of anxiety or was it fear?


At the end of the visit,  before I returned the dosimeter, I peeredthrough.

It did not record any measurable dose. My fear was due to  ignorance.

If I recollect correctly, they gave only one dosimeter  to the group. I rushed in to collect it. Just in case! We are afraid of radiation because it cannot be felt, smelt or seen. We need special instruments to detect them. Eight months earlier, just before we were recruited, we were sent for medical examination. Four or five of us were inside the X-ray room.I peeped in when my friend underwent X-ray screening, a practice I may unequivocally condemn now. We waited there giggling. We were not afraid of X-rays.


A few years later I had opportunity to see closely how radiation safety is achieved in a clinical environment in one of the premier university medical centres in the U.S.A.


Once, there was a radiological scare in the pathological laboratory. A biopsy sample from a patient contained a tiny seed of gold. While the technician placed the sample on a slide, she saw it and reported to the pathologist. When they reviewed the patients file, they noted that five years earlier his physician had implanted few gold seeds in the floor of his mouth —a normal radiotherapy procedure. After a few urgent calls to the Radiological Physics Division, the issue was settled. At that point of time the gold seed has no radioactivity. Radioactive gold seed is used for such treatment because they can be safely implanted and left in tissue as that isotope of gold has a short half-life.


In bio-medical research radio-nuclides are routinely used. It was a subject in one such study. I was asked to ingest a small amount of Potassium-42. After some time the  distribution of the activity was studied by using a whole-body radioactivity monitor. This method is ideal to calibrate such counters. The radiation dose to the body will be trivial.


My friend who had exactly the same academic and professional background like me refused to be a subject. Any amount of rationalization was not enough to  convince him.


He used to smoke about 20 cigarettes a day, thereby accepting a risk that is several thousand times more than that from the research procedures involving Potassium-42.

Fear of radiation may vanish if the effects are explained quantitatively. While nobody can support uncontrolled use of radiation, one should not loose sleep over radiation doses that are trivial.

About ksparthasarathy

I am a former Secretary of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. I am a former Raja Ramanna Fellow in the Department of Atomic Energy. Free lance journalism is my hobby
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