We need a “mindset reversal” about radiation

Gerry Thomas explains why our fear of radiation is misplaced

One item for today. I had a fascinating discussion on the Power Hungry Podcast with Dr. Geraldine Thomas, the director of the Chernobyl Tissue Bank. Gerry, as she prefers to be called, is also a faculty member at Imperial College London. Since the early 1990s, she has been overseeing the collection and banking of tissue samples from people who’ve had surgery after being exposed to radiation in  the fallout area near the Chernobyl nuclear plant in northern Ukraine.

Two years ago, I saw Gerry on a segment of 60 Minutes Australia that focused on the cleanup at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. In that segment, she explained that no one had died from radiation at Fukushima and that in fact, the evacuation of people from the area around the plant had caused more deaths than if those people had been able to stay in their homes after the accident. 

During the podcast, she told me that most people have difficulty making sense of radiation dosing. She said that the amount of radiation a person gets from a whole-body CT scan is about 10 millisieverts, which, she explained is about the same dose incurred by people who are living near Chernobyl get “spread out over 20-odd years.” 

She said, our excessive fear of radiation is due to many factors: “You can’t taste it, you can’t smell it, you can’t see it, you can’t feel it.” And of course, it can’t be detected unless you have a dosimeter. Combine all those factors, and it’s easy to understand why people are afraid. She went on, saying:   And it actually is a really hardwired fear. I mean, my husband has the same degree as me, [a Ph.D. in pathology] we had exactly the same education. And he still sits there and goes, “Are you absolutely sure this is right?” There’s something in the back of your mind that says, “Are you sure?” because we’ve had so many years of being made to fear, even the smallest dose of radiation, that actually it takes quite a mindset reversal to be able to get your head around it. So I can understand why people struggle with it. I really can. Our discussion reminded me yet again why doing the podcast is so much fun. Gerry was charming and funny. If you have a few minutes, by all means, give it a listen.

Have a dandy weekend. 
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