12 Sep 2011

Radiation good and bad

filed under: journal  :: modern life

(ETA: If you're interested in what's going on, or could have happened, at Marcoule, the radioactivity level monitoring page operated by the Commission de Recherche et d'Information Indépendantes sur la Radioactivité (CRIIRAD), an independent nuclear watchdog organization, may be of interest. Click on "Installations Nucleaires" to see where the Marcoule facility is. The nearest region for which there are both air and water measurements is the Avignon area; click on that to get to PDF charts.)

This year I've heard more about radiation than I ever thought possible. First there was the tsunami that damaged the Fukushima nuclear power plants of course, about which I wrote extensively on this site and elsewhere. And most recently, there was this accident in southern France, in Marcoule, which is about 50 40 km from our house. I were sitting in the mairie (town hall) of our local village this afternoon, signing some documents and stuff, when the official who was taking care of us took a phone call. It was from a 'concerned' citizen asking whether iodine pills would be made available due to the accident. The official reassured the caller very politely (nothing sounds as polite and elegant as politely spoken French) that they were not as of yet deemed necessary, and that the mairie, police and fire department were all on top of things. Then he hung up and shrugged a tiny bit. (In case you are wondering, the atmospheric radiation levels are at normal levels in the immediate vicinity of the facility where the accident occured. Of course, France being so heavily dependent on nuclear energy (it's a major export commodity for them among other things) they are puting a lot of effort into damage control on all levels.)

In case you are wondering, no, neither Max nor I are are at all worried about radiation poisoning or getting a hold of iodine pills. There's no cause to be. And, if I were, I'd be a total hypocrite, because last week, I had so many tests that involved radiation (in particular a CT scan), that helped to pinpoint those pesky cancerous cells in my body. Later this week I'm going to be starting a multi-week course of radiation therapy, which means more radiation exposure of course. (I may get something called "radiation burn". Sounds fun.) Without the existence of radiation related medical technologies, my chances of living a long enough life to become a dotty old aunt that my niece and nephew can be embarassed about are probably not so good.

I know, it's totally different when you are exposed to controlled, low doses of radiation voluntarily (not that you specifically asked in advance about it; not that I would have said no) vs. getting some unknown amount via the atmosphere. The thing is though, like it or now we humans have been living with this thing called radiation for a while now, and it's used for good and bad. Very bad of course is its use for weapons of mass destruction. Good is its use to treat or diagnose medical conditions. Perhaps nebulous is its use to generate energy. It's obvious that far stricter safety measures need to be in place, if it's used for that purpose, especially in earthquake prone areas.

Radioactive/nuclear something is the boogeyman of today. Every other thriller movie plot seems to involve a "dirty bomb". The hysteria surrounding the Fukushima plant accident from some parties, both within Japan and without, is sometimes sickening - not to mention the profiteering and pot-stirring by various parties with their own axes to grind. But surely this is not the way to face such an issue. Accidents are tragic, but what's the use if one cannot learn from them? What's the use of running around yelling "I don't understand so I'm scared of it, I want to forget it ever existed!"? If people who are screaming anti-nuclear slogans and acting like headless chickens every time 'something' happens are to be really consequent, they should refuse any medical treatment that involves radiation. You think they'd do it? Would you?

Me, I'm not refusing my radiation therapy. Do I keep a slightly wary eye on the nuclear power plant location about 30 km from our house (Tricastin)? Sure. Am I worrying myself sick about it? Not on your life. I have plenty of other, much more immediately worrisome things to worry about, thank you.

The nuclear genie has been out of the bottle for decades, and we can't push it back. As the species who let that genie out, surely we are responsible for learning to control it properly, safely - not bury our heads in the sand about it.

Comments on this post:

Hi Bronwin, I work in a lab

Hi Bronwin, I work in a lab too, and have worked with isotopes before (32P and 14C), actually it is rather easy to check if you are spilling things around as you can use a Geiger counter....and have a lot of health and safety precautions in place. You can wear a dosimeter that keeps in check your total exposure.
I don't know what you used in the lab, may be you were working with nastier stuff than me.

On the other end you can't use a counter to check if you or your colleagues have been a bit careless with stuff that is potentially dangerous, like Ethidium bromide (for the laypersons, it is a dye that intercalates, inserts itself, into DNA molecules, very handy to visualize them, but yes, it cann mess up DNA with all the consequences) and other potentially carcinogenic, mutagenic, theratogenic, and plainly toxic stuff.


My mom works in a Cardiac Cath Lab and she is exposed to radiation every day. She has to wear one of those badges that absorbs radiation. A positive side effect to radiation, because my mom has been working in the lab for so long, her vision has corrected itself. Kind of funny because she needed glasses 10 years ago an after a recent eye exam, she was told she no longer needs glasses.

Aside all of the, I hope that you go through your radiation treatments with good spirits and relative freedom from negative side effects.

Radiation burn

I had radiation treatments for cancer five years ago, and yes, the radiation burn is pretty awful. My oncologist recommended that I treat my skin with a heavy, greasy ointment (I used Aquafor) at the start of treatment and I did. My skin stayed pretty healthy until the last ten days or so of a seven-week course of radiation. I think it would have been a lot worse if I hadn't cared for my skin right from the beginning.

Thanks! That should be quite

Thanks! That should be quite useful. Hate to have a burned belly ^_^;

Then after the burn you get a

Then after the burn you get a tan! I had a goofy, tan rectangle on my right breast for quite a while after my treatment ended.


I think the frightening thing about radiation is that it's undetectable without specialised equipment. I work in front of a computer these days, but I used to work in a laboratory and I used radioactive compounds regularly. You can't see it, you can't smell it, if you can feel it you're already near death, and on top of that, the volumes of material that are dangerous are minutely small. You have no illusions that you have any control over it, especially when it's someone else who is handling it.

The illusion of control is very important to our sense of safety. I think about this quite often lately, because my elder granddaughter has started school, and her mother has no intention of letting her walk the 500 or so metres by herself until she is about 10. This is because of the risk of paedophiles who are lurking in every bush ready to abduct small children. No matter that the vast majority of child sexual abuse comes from friends and family, and no matter that she runs more risk of harming the kids every time she drives them somewhere in the car. I've come to the conclusion that the difference between these quite real risks and the negligible risk of abduction by paedophile is that my daughter in law (and all of her friends, indeed most mothers these days) feel in control when they are driving and around their friends and family, no matter that it's an illusion. It's the unknown quality of the paedophile-in-the-bushes that makes him so frightening. Just like radioactivity.

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