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Bradbury Science Museum

Science on Tap Question

Should I be concerned about my levels of exposure to radiation?
October 1, 2018
Visitor looking at Radiation exhibit

A visitor discovers that Fiestaware is a “hot” property at the Bradbury Science Museum’s Radiation Exhibit.

About the size of a jar of peanut butter and weighing in at about eleven pounds, the Lighthouse Detectors can pinpoint the location of a radioactive source and even track it in transit.

The short answer, for most people, is probably not.  The risk of physical harm from exposure to radiation is almost entirely dependent upon the type, proximity, and duration of exposure. 

Daily, each of us experience an average of .62 Roentgen equivalent man, or REM, of naturally-occurring background radiation from multiple sources. Enjoying a sunny day exposes us to ultra-violet radiation, but the benefits fresh air and vitamin D provide are crucial to both mental and physical health. Common, every day foods we eat, including lima beans, bananas, and even beer, contain potassium-40, making them naturally radioactive, but none are considered dangerous in reasonable amounts. 

Radon, another naturally-occurring form of radiation, is a radioactive gas coming from the earth's own soil and rock, resulting from the decay of uranium ore. Colorless and odorless, it is commonly found throughout most the country and accounts for almost half of our daily exposure. It dissipates rapidly outdoors though, so radon is not generally an issue for most of us. However, it can build up indoors, be unknowingly inhaled, and lead to serious health consequences.  In fact, radon gas is second only to smoking cigarettes as the leading cause of lung cancer. Fortunately, the simple act of ventilating a room allows the gas to escape, clearing the hazard. Also, radon test kits can be found in almost any hardware store, are easy to operate, and are inexpensive or even free from many local or county health departments or state programs. 

Potentially hazardous, man-made forms of radiation do warrant concern, but are generally encountered only in specific occupational settings, including healthcare facilities, universities, and the nuclear weapons industry. These industries all have robust and exacting controls in place to protect their workers and communities, including protective gear, rigorous training and procedural requirements, and programs whose sole mission is to ensure the safe and secure handling and maintenance of these materials.  At Los Alamos, the safety of our staff and neighbors is always paramount and our dedication to global security and worker safety has led to many advancements in how we mitigate risk from radioactive sources both at home and abroad. One of our most recent contributions is a R&D 100 Award finalist, Jonathan Dowell’s Lighthouse Detector, a radiation detection tool. 

About the size of a jar of peanut butter and weighing in at about eleven pounds, the Lighthouse Detectors can pinpoint the location of a radioactive source and even track it in transit. The device is capable of detecting both gamma rays and neutrons, each of which can present serious global security challenges. Thanks to the inspired researchers at Los Alamos, we have one more tool to employ in pursuit of a safer world.