[ RadSafe ] rad material at your local high school

Nathan Russell windrunner at gmail.com
Fri Dec 1 13:57:10 CST 2006

(resending to the list, this didn't make it through due to a hiccup of
some sort last night)

On 11/30/06, Ruth Sponsler <jk5554 at yahoo.com> wrote:
> Thanks for sharing!
> Actually, it's important to do demonstrations in
> school with counting equipment and things like
> Fiestaware and small sealed sources.  Other than my
> mother's recollections of the University of Chicago
> Chem Dept. [she was a technical secretaty there during
> the early 1950s and knew people in Physics also], my
> high school science class was my first intro to
> radiation.  We had an Anton scaler that had a cool
> circle of blinking lights and a data register [don't
> recall the model] and a small sealed source.  As a
> rather timid student, I liked this exercise because
> there *weren't* any nasty or reactive chemicals.

I was aware of that at the time as well.  I was accelerated by a year
in science, and it surprised me to see the number of students who had
concerns regarding Fiestaware, and radiation in general.  Being 13 at
the time, I was tempted to say something about the cafeteria food
being radioactive...

> The problem is that the media never learns that "the
> dose makes the poison."
> I blogged about school labs at
> http://wesupportlee.blogspot.com/2006/11/will-journalists-paranoia-hurt-science.html

Read that, as well as the CNN artice you linked, and found it
interesting.  I'm surprised there's a market for people to charge
$1000 to remove uranium ore from high schools - especially because,
and correct me if I'm wrong, the decay chains of uranium don't contain
a great deal of gamma emission, so the hazard to those walking past
that display case was minimal?

> We don't know the "whodunnit" of the Litvinenko case,
> but there seems to be some sort of connection with the
> Russian fossil fuel industry.

It's really premature to speculate.  Consider how many years it took
to solve, say, the Unabomber case.

> Maybe I'm just being whacky and speculative, but it's
> not out of the realm of possibility to speculate that
> there was some sort of power play by fossil fuel
> interests using Po-210 and the consequent sociological
> worry over "radioactive contamination of
> restaurant/planes/hotel" to instill societal
> radiophobia and gain more power for a fossil fuel
> interest of some sort.

That's not impossible.  I'd certainly say that people tend to
overestimate the risks from radiation (which is scary) and
underestimate the everyday risks they face.  The average person would
do much better getting to a healthy weight, quitting smoking, driving
carefully, and walking past a chunk of uranium ore every day than
doing none of those.

> Po-210 was likely used as a modus operandi of
> internal exposure because of its short half-life and
> high specific alpha activity, yet safety to the
> handlers because most emissions are alpha and there is
> a low gamma activity.

I also can't help but think that if, for example, the Russian
government was responsible, a motive might have been to use a
hard-to-get poison, to emphasize to other potential dissidents that
they can get anybody they want and don't have to be subtle.  But
that's all speculation at this point.  The bigger issue, with all
respect for Mr. Litvinenko's family, is to damp down the public
paranoia which may have been as much of a goal as his death.

> The thing is...what percentage of people, like those
> British Airways passengers, remember from science
> class that alpha particles are not a hazard for
> external exposure?  Frobably relatively few.  Even
> fewer people learned about various isotopes and
> dose-response relationships in high school - this is
> more a topic for a health physics or radiology course
> in college.  Thus, the sociological fear-mongering
> caused by the incident.

Yep.  What's the chance that many passengers got a higher dose than
they're getting from their TV set/monitor, or from the K-40 in their


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