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Too Much Concern For Safety

As a federal employee in the field of nuclear safety, I question the relevance of Brice Smith’s column last week [“A Culture of Safety?”]. Presumably, he sought to raise concern about exposure to non-background radiation sources. It would be illogical to raise concern about background radiation sources, since there is little that one can do to reduce his or her exposure to radon or cosmic rays, which constitute the majority of background radiation dose. I am also going to assume that he was mostly concerned about the notion that occupational radiation dose is not harmful at low levels, since the training that he attended was for occupational radiation safety.

Regardless of how many studies he cites, the fact remains that occupational doses tend to be miniscule compared to both background dose and radiation exposure that we receive in our day-to-day activities. I currently work alongside many people who have worked in the nuclear industry for decades. I know of one person with a lifetime occupational dose of 100 mrem after 32 years in the industry; everybody else with whom I have spoken on the matter has never had a reportable dose (dose is reportable at 0.5 mrem and is measured quarterly). To put those numbers in perspective, background radiation dose at sea level is 360 mrem per year; in other words, the individual with the 100 mrem lifetime occupational dose gets a higher dose from unavoidable sources in three months than in 32 years of work in the nuclear industry.

Additionally, non-occupational activities can increase your radiation dose significantly more than occupational activities. For example, because K-40 is a naturally-occurring radioactive isotope and present in all foods with potassium, consumption of potassium-rich foods will increase your radiation dose. If you drink an eight-ounce glass of orange juice every morning, you receive a dose of 2.5 mrem a year. For that matter, if you get the USRDA of potassium in your diet, you receive an annual dose of about 10 mrem in doing so. In other words, if the individual whom I previously referenced is taking in sufficient potassium for optimal health, he gets a higher dose from 10 years of a healthy diet than 32 years of working in the nuclear industry.

I suggest that if you are very concerned about radiation, you examine your breakfast before you examine occupational exposure to radiation. Further, if Mr. Smith is truly interested in informing the public about potential life-shortening activities, he should write columns about the automotive and tobacco industries rather than occupational radiation exposure.

Victoria Anderson ’02