Radiation Safety Training for Graduate Students (A Little Comic Relief)
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Radiation Safety Training for Graduate Students (A Little Comic Relief)

By Dr. Zoomie


I’m your neighborhood University Radiation Safety Officer.  My staff and I have three primary goals: don’t let anyone get hurt, don’t let anyone break any laws, and provide as much support as we can to the people who bring in grant money.  Unless, of course, they are trying to do things that are dangerous or illegal.  Professionally, I’m a health physicist.  Health physics is the profession that works with radiation safety.  It started off as a code term during World War II, to keep our enemies from knowing that we were doing research into radiation biology.  Its success is best measured by the fact that, after nearly 60 years, virtually nobody has yet figured out what it means.

Radiation may well be the second most innocuous thing in your laboratories, just ahead of your telephone.  It won’t cut you, electrocute you, fall on your foot, burn you, poison you, infect you, or do many of the other things that your normal lab equipment and reagents can do.  It’s less dangerous than your drive to work, and is easier to detect than most of your chemicals.  You won’t receive enough radiation at work to make you ill no matter which hypothesis you believe in to describe our response to radiation exposure, and if you have funny-looking children it’s probably the fault of your in-laws and not the radiation in your lab.  If you really want to reduce your risks, consider giving up eating pickles.  It’s a fact that everyone who ate a pickle in 1838 is now dead, strongly suggesting that pickles are deadly and should be avoided at all costs.

We are all exposed to radiation from background sources daily.  Exposure to radon is the most significant, primarily because we prefer to work and sleep indoors instead of under the stars.  Of course, some believe that this condemns us to an early death from lung cancer, but sheltering ourselves from the elements may have some positive aspects, too, and you should consider continuing this habit if at all possible.  We can’t do much about our exposure to internal radionuclides because potassium deficiency has been shown to have adverse health effects that slightly outweigh the potential ill effects from exposure to K-40 radiation.  Other sources of natural radiation are radionuclides in rocks and soil and cosmic radiation.  If these concern you, you may wish to consider moving to a coral island near the equator, if you can find grant support to do so.  Otherwise, you may be relieved to note that background radiation is something that’s been with us for billions of years, and it’s now thought possible that we have adapted to live with it quite safely.

Moving to the realm of working safely with radiation and radioactivity, there are a few principles you should keep in mind.  First, you should take reasonable precautions to reduce your radiation exposure.  The three tenants of health physicists are time, distance, and shielding.  You want to reduce the amount of time you spend in a radiation field, but don’t rush your experiments to the point that you make mistakes or cause spills.  You should work at the greatest distance possible from your stock vials, but working at distances greater than arms’ length has been shown to negatively affect data quality.  You should also try to interpose shielding between yourself and the radioactive materials you are working with.  This can be plastic, leaded glass, or slender co-workers.

In addition to these factors, we require you to wear lab coats and gloves to minimize the potential for contaminating yourself or your clothing.  An added precaution is that you should minimize the amount of exposed skin that you can spill or splash onto.  While you need not wear a wetsuit, you should not wear skirts, shorts, kilts, flip-flops, or similar items of clothing while doing “hot” work.  Needless to say, “Naked co-ed gene sequencing” is frowned upon.  You are also advised that eating, drinking, smoking, chewing tobacco, applying cosmetics, using dental floss, watching cooking shows, storing food, and having watermelon seed-spitting contests in posted laboratories is prohibited.

In spite of your best efforts, it’s likely that, at some point, you’ll end up causing a radioactive spill or contaminating yourself.  If that happens, don’t panic, and take some immediate actions to try to make the situation better.

In case of a spill, you need to let other people know there’s a problem and keep it from getting worse.  Although you might be embarrassed at your little faux pas, you don’t want to have people unwittingly walking through the spill.  So you should let other people know that you have caused a spill and where it is.  Also, don’t be shy about contacting Radiation Safety.  We’ll help out if we need to, and we promise not to make you feel like an idiot for having done something that we’ve all done, too.  After hours, call Security and they’ll page me.  I am sometimes a bit gruff when I’m under-caffeinated, but I’ll apologize for any unkind things I might have said after my second cup of coffee.  Nobody should be held responsible for anything they say within ten minutes of waking up.  If you don’t call, I’ll probably say worse things and I won’t apologize afterwards.

The next thing you want to do is to try to isolate the spill.  You have probably noticed that this is a university and that many academics are not fully aware of their surroundings at all times.  This means that you should make an effort to keep people out of the spill area by putting up physical barriers that will at least cause people to slow down a little bit before they wander into your spill area.  Your spill kit should include a dart gun – anyone trying to enter the spill area without wearing a lab coat, gloves, and shoe covers should be darted and the bodies can be stacked out of the way.

If you manage to contaminate yourself, don’t panic.  Give us a call to let us know, and try to dial the phone with an uncontaminated hand so we don’t have to take your phone, too.  Then, you should try to decontaminate yourself using mild soap and warm to cool water.  Don’t use a wire brush, cleanser, scrub pads, steel wool, lye, needle guns or any other substances that might damage the skin.  I have only seen a few cases in which this didn’t work.  In one case, we simply taped a plastic bag over the person’s hand and the activity was sweated out in less than a day.  We typically don’t recommend this approach for facial contamination, but we are willing to consider all options to help out some of our more valued researchers.

That’s about all I have for this class.  I’d like to thank you for showing up and staying awake, because I know that most people would rather have a root canal without anesthesia than attend yet another mandatory training program.  Go out, have fun, and call us if you have any questions or problems.