Brazil Nuts, Beer and Bananas

b&b 2I know a guy who collects minerals. He’s retired and has a place in the mountains where he can wander out to old mine dumps looking for likely stones. Sometimes he sieves the waste rock piles to find interesting stones. Often he’ll use an old Civil Defense Geiger counter to help sort the rocks, since so many of the interesting minerals are naturally radioactive or are found in a radioactive matrix.

I’ve taken a borrowed scintillometer (a newer radiation detector) around my house and neighborhood. Radiation levels vary quite a bit in my neighborhood. My house is made of brick and has stone foundations, so reads above normal background. (My radon levels were alright, though.) Readings vary with different surfaces (bricks, asphalt, concrete, flagstone, dirt/grass) and at the end of my street where the old claypits are still visible, the readings were several times normal background (hence the higher than background bricks).

Of course, background varies wildly in Colorado. We’re right on top of the new rock that formed the Rockies and it’s loaded with uranium and its decay products, notably radium. (Radium is a big producer of radon, which is why we have a significant number of structures in Colorado with dangerously high levels of it. So, get your house tested; it’s cheap and easy.) That’s also why Colorado has great and interesting minerals, the young rock is near the surface where we can get to it.

Of course, radiation is present everywhere. There’s cosmic radiation (related to altitude), terrestrial radiation (related to earth materials) and man-made radiation. (X-Rays). We all are exposed to cosmic radiation, although airline pilots, astronauts and people at higher elevations (like Colorado) have higher exposures. We are all exposed to terrestrial radiation, depending on the naturally-occurring radionuclides in the local geology (uranium creates radium which creates radon gas). We all use microwaves, TVs and cell phones, get dental and medical exams (X-Rays and Cat Scans) and eat Brazil Nuts, bananas, beer and other foods with low amounts of natural radiation. In spite of (or because of) this constant exposure, human seem to be thriving.

But just past those claypits at the end of my street was a research facility on an old coal mine property that performed all kinds of research and testing primarily for the mining industry. It was established in about 1912 by the Bureau of Mines and operated until the 1980’s. A lot of the work was done for the uranium industry, and the buildings and site became significantly contaminated with radioactive materials and other chemicals over time. Before it was cleaned up, levels of contamination were pretty high and the contaminated groundwater seeped into the nearby creek.

I personally surveyed the property before it was cleaned up (it took several years after they closed the facility to fence off the site or seal the buildings) and found significant hot spots and lots of lower level contamination. Since our neighborhood was only about a block away from the site, we asked them to monitor dust from the site during cleanup, and we ensured that waste was hauled out the other side of the site away from the residences.

The neighbors didn’t get all spun up, but remained interested in making sure things were done properly. Hard questions were asked and usually answered, and the technical aspects of the cleanup were largely understood. It became necessary a few times to beat on the regulators or the owners, but we got the results we needed, for the most part.

One reason this process moved as smoothly as it did was that many of the people in the neighborhood had scientific and technical backgrounds and could make distinctions among the relative risks presented by the site. They didn’t freak out at the mention of radiation, and they seemed to understand that radioactivity was something that could be understood and managed. In addition, outside activists never became engaged at the site, and the interests represented were those of the local community, the regulators and the owner.

At other sites, I have seen the locally impacted community pull together to address their issues, but get derailed when the bigger-picture, professional activists and attorneys get involved. The local issues get blurred and subsumed into the bigger things, the national interests or the ultimate morality of a capitalist society. Resolution often takes longer and may not even address local concerns.

This scenario plays out well in the media. A good story requires a villain, a victim and a hero. Obviously, industry or government is the villain; the local community or workers are the victims; and the activists (and their attorneys) or the media are the heroes. Even where the roles don’t exactly fit, a canny ‘journalist’ can make it into a compelling us-versus-them story.

The problem is that when all the hoorah is over and the activists and media leave town, the local issues can remain unresolved — or even made worse. The money is spent, the rifts in the community are deep and enduring, and it can take a lot longer than expected. The activists and the media got what they wanted: attention, headlines (bylines), money to fight the good fight, another notch in their belt. But the locals are left holding what’s left.

And, throughout this process at a radiation site, the amount of misinformation intentionally spouted can be immense because fear-mongering guarantees media attention. People don’t seem to understand how common radiation is in our lives. We live in a radioactive environment, and everything on earth has evolved in one. Just as for chemicals, we need to manage how we use and interact with radioactive materials. The use of radioactive materials and machine-generated radiation is strictly regulated to minimize exposure to acceptable levels. That means there are scientifically recognized acceptable levels, evaluated routinely based on new information.

Just as there are acceptable levels of rat poop in food products, and acceptable levels of chemicals in our dry cleaning, there are acceptable levels of radiation exposure. A major difference, however, is that radiation exists everywhere and we are constantly exposed to it. That’s not necessarily true for rat poop or volatile organic chemicals or most of the other “contaminants” we worry about. We know what radiation levels are safe and what levels are not.

In addition, our ability to detect and measure radiation is incredible. Yet, our methods for detecting and measuring other contaminants is far inferior to those for radiation. It’s actually part of the problem that we can detect radiation far below any risk level. And, those risk levels are set at extremely conservative amounts – a value one hundred times lower than the lifetime level of exposure for which a cancer risk can be evaluated or predicted.

In chemically-contaminated sites, we generally aim to clean up to a level that would only allow the risk of one induced cancer for every million people exposed over a working life or resident occupancy. Colorado has roughly five million people spread out over more than 100,000 square miles. That means that if every Coloradan lived or worked at that site for that period, five would be at risk for a site-induced cancer. Given that current cancer rates in the general population are about one in two for men and one in three for women, it’s hard to see the effect of clean up.

But for those that don’t believe the science or the scientists, it’s easy to be afraid and to scare others into being afraid as well. So to those people, I say, don’t have your clothes dry cleaned, don’t eat anything you don’t grow yourself, don’t go outside (cosmic radiation) or stay inside (radon), and for sure, don’t eat Brazil Nuts or bananas, or drink that beer.

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