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Friday, April 07, 2006

By the book for good reason

One car slides into another. The driver jumps out. Flames shoot from the hood. The driver, in halting English, says something about "uranium.'' He starts returning to the car. Police on the scene tell him to stop. The driver gets to the car, reaches inside and pops open the trunk. The officers yell at him again, in vain. The man goes to the trunk and pulls out a yellow cooler, marked with the radiation logo. He places it at a fence outside a nearby home. Police train their guns on him and order him to the ground.

An overreaction? Not at all. The law enforcement officers did what they should when faced with the unknown after this accident happened on Route 9 in Lakewood Wednesday. It turned out the cooler contained a hand-held meter used by construction testing firms. It does have two radioactive materials - cesium-137 and americium - inside, but with only a fraction of the radiation of a dental X-ray.

"I didn't want to profile,'' the Lakewood fire chief said of the reaction to the native of India who wasn't communicating well with police. "This was textbook, done by the book, because you never know,'' he added. He's right, when dealing with the unknown. Everything the driver did - in his desire to avoid having the gauge catch fire - reinforced that concern. Let's hope his employer tells him to identify himself in the future as working for a testing laboratory with a radioactive meter aboard. That would prevent a hazmat call from being treated as possible terrorism in the super-vigilant 9/11 world.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:43 PM, April 07, 2006  
Anonymous Donnie said...

"It does have two radioactive material - cesium-137 and americium - inside, but with only a fraction of the radiation of a dental X-ray"

The sentence above, from the blog article, demonstrates a serious weakness in the ability of newspapers to report on issues involving radiation and radioactive materials. Those are important issues today, but the weakness has been persistant.

The statement from the blog article, and a similar comment in the original story are both wrong. That is because the cesium and Americium are not radiation, they are sources of radiation. When properly used the density meters involved will release enough radiation to the user to give the dose described. That is because of the three important considerations for radioactive material: Time, Distance, Shielding and Source strength. If the sources in the story, radioactive cesium and Americium, had been removed from the density meter and placed in somebody's pocket, that person would have gotten a dose much higher than a dental X-ray. Yet the meters are still safe and there was no danger to any of the people involved in the accident.

10:41 AM, April 08, 2006  
Blogger Ray said...

Donnie, I fail to see your point. First, the article doesn't say that the cesium and americium are radiation. The operative word in the sentence you quoted is with. IOW, there is radiation associated with the two isotopes but they aren't themselves radiation. Second, the worry during the incident was that the meter may have been broken and therefore that safety may have been compromised. The fact that an intact meter would be harmless is irrelevant.

11:45 PM, April 13, 2006  
Anonymous Donnie said...

Sorry ray, you don't get it. The radiation associated with the two isotopes is much more than the radiation from a dental X-ray, if that is the way that you want to phrase it. I can't tell you how much because the strength of the source material was not given in Curies. The article was incorrectly written because the vast majority of jouranalists are clueless about ionizing radiation, its sources and its effects.

8:30 AM, April 14, 2006  
Blogger Ray said...

Donnie, you're still failing to see that the issue isn't whether or not the meter is safer than dental x-rays when handled properly. The issue is whether or not a broken meter would have been a safety hazard which you actually acknowledged when you wrote about what would happen if someone handled it incorrectly. So, remembering that this story was about an auto accident involving a car that carried the meter, any statements about meters being safe when handled properly are irrelevant.

But I'm with you about one thing. Journalists are clueless about radiation but so are the rest of the population. The vast majority of us are science illiterates.

12:21 AM, April 19, 2006  

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