What does a Health Physicist do?

Dr. Zoomie – I know that health physicists are radiation safety specialists, but what do they do?

We spend a lot of time bemoaning the fact that nobody knows what a health physicist is or what we do. Unfortunately, there aren’t many health physicists so it’s hard to assemble a support group unless you live close to a nuclear power plant or a national lab so we generally suffer in silence and try not to develop drinking problems. But now I’m thinking that maybe you were thinking about what we do on the job…. So let me try to answer that!

Cartoon - I Hear You're a Health Physicist

Radiation safety is a lot more than doing radiation surveys and decontaminating things. In a hospital, for example, health physicists help to make sure that x-ray machines are working properly, that radiation therapy sources are stored and used safely, and that nuclear medicine “hot labs” can account for their radioactive materials (among other things). At a university, health physicists will check to make sure that scientists follow regulations and use their radioactive materials safely, they organize and run radioactive waste programs, respond to radioactive spills, and help review research plans, and work with researchers to keep radiation exposure to their staff as low as possible. And as regulators, health physicists have a huge role in making sure that licensees use radiation and radioactivity safely as well as making sure they follow all of the applicable laws.

And there’s more to it than that – a friend of mine is a health physicist for NASA, which uses radioactive sources to power many of their deep space missions. Another friend of mine works on making plans to help keep the public safe if there’s a radiological or nuclear accident. After the Fukushima accident, I traveled to Japan with many of my colleagues. Some helped to map the extent of contamination, others helped assess radiation dose to the public, and still others helped to provide information to physicians, emergency responders, and governmental officials. There’s more than that, too, but space is running out. So let it suffice to say that, if it involves radiation (medical, research, industrial, nuclear power), health physicists will be involved to help make sure that people and the environment are protected.

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