Friday, July 20, 2012

Shielding Olympic Dreams: Security at the 2012 London Games

London is bustling as athletes, trainers, reporters, and spectators pour in for the 2012 Olympic games starting this month.  The city has been preparing to host the 2012 Olympic Games since mid 2005 when London was announced to be the winning bidder.  The need for security in London has been an integral part of these preparations, especially considering the lethal subway bombings that pounded London the very next day after the bid announcement.
Security won’t be cheap for the 2012 Olympics: estimates for security costs top $1.6 billion.  This enormous cost is partially due to concerns that didn’t exist in previous Olympics.  In addition to defending against terrorist attacks and violent crowds that are a threat at nearly any major sporting event, Olympic organizers are even planning to defend against cyber-attacks that could upend athletic events and programs.
Security efforts started long ago for the 2012 Olympics. source
An incredible amount of manpower is also going to protect against dirty bombs – small explosive devices containing dispersible radioactive material.  As one expert involved in London security stated, “The main risk is radioactive materials which may be used to contaminate an area or combined with conventional explosives to create a so-called ‘dirty bomb.”1  This type of easy-to-construct bombs could be extremely disruptive to any event. The fear of contamination brought on by a dirty bomb could shut down a venue for years.  The risk is all too real at this point in preparation: a fake bomb was smuggled into the main Olympic stadium on construction equipment only one day before the official opening.
Photo on the london2012 site describing security measures at the games
 To mitigate bomb fears, Olympic organizers are turning to strength in technology.  2,700 airport-type scanners are being brought in to check over crowds of over 200,000 that are expected to attend every day.  Covert scanners will also be employed to check for threats day and night.  Some of these scanners are expected to be built into pillars around the Olympic complex.2  
So as the stadiums fill in just a few short weeks, we won’t be the only ones watching with baited breath to see who comes out victorious.  We wish not only those performing, but also those protecting, the best of luck.
D-tect Systems is a supplier of advanced radiation and chemical detection equipment sold around the world.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Mutants and Superpowers: Radiation on the Big Screen

If there’s anything I’ve learned from Hollywood lately, it’s that a strong dose of radiation can do just about anything. Superhero movies are all over, and as blockbusters based on nostalgic comic book characters continue to fill theatres and set records, I can’t help but notice how much reference to radiation is made.  Radiation is responsible for Bruce Banner’s transformation to the Hulk, the fateful spider bite that begins Peter Parkers career as Spiderman, and shows the Avengers the way to the Tesseract – an all-powerful energy source that threatens earth.
Radiation continues to play an important role in modern media. source
Even with the knowledge that fiction is generally much more fun to watch than reality, why is radiation such a staple for script writers?  One possible explanation is the mysterious nature of radiation.  Scientists are still filling in the gaps about how radiation really affects humans and animals.  Long-tem low-level radiation exposure is an especially mysterious realm, due to the fact that so much time is required for testing and large man-made radiation sources have only been around since the early 1900s.

What we can take away is that Hollywood’s version of radioactive effects is very different from what really happens in the natural world.  Let’s take the example of genetic mutation.  We all know the story: ____ normal person is accidentally exposed to ____ source of radiation and instantly acquires ____ power.  The natural world argues that there simply isn’t enough time for this to happen. That’s because radiation affects the human body at the cellular level. 

Peter Parker and the radioactive spider. source
Radiation definitely makes changes to cell structure either by directly changing molecules or by creating charged particles that travel around the body and make changes (known as free radicals).  Serious problems can arise when radiation makes changes in strands of DNA, the microscopic blueprints of cells.  In these cases, radiation can cause cancer if the cell is not completely killed.  Cancer is produced if radiation creates an error in the DNA blueprint that contributes to eventual loss of control of cell division, and the cell begins dividing uncontrollably. This effect might not appear for many years – just as many other effects from radiation including cell mutations.

Cellular mutation is not only a regular occurrence in the natural world, it is also serves as the base of evolutionary change.  As random cell mutations occur due to environmental effects such as radiation or just biological functions, only the fittest survive.  Successful and efficient organisms (and their constituent cells) are able to survive and reproduce while weaker ones die out.  Although minor evolutionary changes can occur quickly in isolated organism groups, major adaptations can take millions of years.  Although we understand that this time frame could be problematic for plot development, overnight genetic mutations just can’t happen.
Blue eyes are a product of recent genetic mutation; only 6,000-10,000 years ago changes to the human genome allowed for light-colored eyes. source
Surprisingly, one recent scientific discovery paints a very Hollywood-esque picture of mutation.  A medical study on the inhabitants of the Kerala peninsula in India focused on the effects of very high background radiation on humans.  This area contains the highest background levels anywhere in the world – more than ten times the global average.  The data collected shows relatively normal levels of cancers, but increased levels of cellular mutation that gets passed down from mothers to children.  Furthermore, the surrounding wildlife was observed to contain accelerated mutation rates.  Scientists concluded that the heightened radiation level here has been linked to accelerated mutations for many organisms, creating an evolutionary hotspot for at least the last 60,000 years.  That means that more new organisms are found here as well as heightened levels of adaptation for existing organisms.

Even though overnight genetic mutations are unlikely, radiation is definitely effective to speed up mutation rates.  In the end, although spontaneous superpowers derived from radiation may not match physical phenomena, they sure are fun to watch.
D-tect Systems is a supplier of advanced radiation and chemical detection equipment sold around the world.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Radiation on the Move

Radioactive materials have a nasty habit – they like to travel.  This phenomenon has caused panic at various times in history after nuclear events and accidents, and continues to do so these days. The nuclear disaster at Chernobyl created clouds of radioactive dust that swept across great swaths of Eastern Europe. Because most of the radiation was leaked into the environment when explosions and resulting fires destroyed the plant, the particles carrying radioactive material were very small and were carried easily by weather patterns. With little warning and even less monitoring, thousands were exposed to unknown amounts of radiation.

As the cleanup of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Complex proceeds, we see a continuation of the same trend. Minute radioactive particles in steam and smoke rose into the atmosphere and were dispersed by wind and rain.  In addition, the proximity of the Fukushima plant to the ocean exacerbated contamination as an immense amount of contaminated ground water leaked into the sea. Although some of the more short-lived radioactive isotopes (such as I-131) soon faded, longer-lasting isotopes continue to cause problems as they travel and coalesce in unexpected areas. The contamination has posed such a problem in ecosystems near the plant that TEPCO began pouring concrete over 786,000 sq. ft. of seafloor near the accident site to encase radioactive materials1.

A recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science shows another example of traveling radiation. Pacific bluefin tuna were discovered to have carried radiation from the Japanese coast to the shores of Monterrey, California in their annual migrations2. This news is surprising because scientists expected radioactive material to be metabolized and shed by the fish much earlier in their vast migratory movements. The isotopes found were not at dangerous levels for consumption, but definitely identifiable as cesium-134 does not occur naturally in the Pacific Ocean and cesium-137 only occurs at minimal levels. 
Tuna caught off the coast of California are found to have traces of radiation originating in Japan. source
This discovery illustrates how easily radiation can spread even great distances, and is a signal that constant widespread monitoring needs to be part of the Fukushima contamination solution. As radiation continues to travel and settle, we need detectors capable of notifying the public of these trends. Only with increased detection capabilities and constant monitoring can we truly understand the travel patterns of radiation. 
D-tect Systems is a supplier of advanced radiation and chemical detection equipment sold around the world.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Defending from Within - Potassium Iodide

Radiation permeates the spaces in which we live and work.  It bounces off our skin, enters our bodies in food and drink, and even collects in our bones. Usually these ambient radiation levels are low enough to make little difference to our overall health. But in extreme cases of high radiation levels in the environment, steps must be taken to stop radiation from getting inside us. Interestingly enough, there some things we can take into our bodies that can protect ourselves from radiation.  
Potassium Iodide (KI) is a salt that has been used as a tool for radiation protection since the FDA approved it in 1982. The iodine in KI is stable (or nonradioactive) and is an important chemical needed by our bodies to produce hormones. Most of the iodine in our bodies collects in the thyroid, the site of specific hormone production. The danger with this concentration is that radioactive iodine (such as I-131) can be absorbed in place of stable iodine, leading to heightened concentrations of radiation and risk of thyroid cancer. Radioactive iodine is a common isotope given off during nuclear reactions.  Last year’s Japanese nuclear crisis released large amounts of I-131 into the environment. This prompted record-setting sales of KI that suppliers could not keep up with.
65 mg Potassium Iodide Tablets. source
Last month KI came into the international spotlight again when the US Defense Logistics Agency ordered 1,050,000 doses of the pill to bulk up its stockpile1. The reason for the order is probably due in part to increased nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran. In any case, the solicitation prompted massive orders for potassium iodide from spooked civilians. 
Although KI is a useful tool for dealing with exposure emergencies, it isn’t a complete remedy. The compound only lessens health hazards from radioactive iodine, not other radioactive isotopes. Correct dosage is very important as well, as young children need far less KI than adults in emergency situations. For other details, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a great page on potassium iodide here.
Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding with potassium iodide is that it doesn’t keep radiation from entering the body, it only reduces the possibility of radioactive iodine being absorbed. That’s why other measures need to be in place to issue advance warnings about radiation threats. Radiation detectors such as the MiniRad-D and Rad-ID as currently used by military, public safety, and homeland security personnel to find and identify radioactive threats. 
D-tect Systems is a supplier of advanced radiation and chemical detection equipment sold around the world.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Radioactive Scrap Metal – a Global Issue

The world is becoming a smaller place. The accelerating pace of technology is pulling people together through communication, travel, business, and industry. Globalization makes it easier to for us to share – a phenomenon with both positive and negative implications. In the great melting pot of world industry, radiation contamination is proving to be an increasingly harmful side-effect. 

As discussed in the previous post, much of the radiation contamination of consumer goods has been linked to contaminated scrap metal. Metal used in the production of goods comes from a variety of sources and almost invariable contains a large amount of recycled materials – a fact that efficiency and environmental controls demand. The problem is that long-lasting radioactive scrap from sources such as medical equipment, food processing, mining equipment, and even decommissioned power plants, is making its way into smelters. The metal turned out from these contaminated batches spreads to other consumer goods – most of which are never checked for radiation.

A scrap metal foundry.  source

Another aspect that further complicates the scrap contamination problems is size – the scrap metal market is worth over $140 billion1. With so much material in flux, an unreported contamination event can send radioactive material to unknowing manufacturers across the globe.  Although the US has stopped over 120 major radioactive shipments since 20032, there is ample evidence that radioactive scrap is still slipping through the cracks.  For example, a Texas recycling facility accidentally created 500,000 pounds of radioactive steel byproducts after melting metal contaminated with cesium-137 according to U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission records for 2006.

Scrap yards and recycling operations truly are the primary line of defense against rogue radiation but most of these facilities are under no specific federal government or state regulations and reporting is often voluntary if problems are found.

We’ve seen the results of contamination close at hand – at a recent visit to the nearby landfill, we were told that almost every load of scrap metal that comes in sets off radiation detectors and has to be scanned a second time.

To aid in this crucial detection stage of industry and commercial operations, D-tect Systems has designed several radiation detectors that are sensitive and easy to mount.  The Rad-D is currently being used in hospitals, factories, embassies, and waste disposal locations.  It can easily be mounted to scan conveyor belts and integrate with existing security systems.  The Rad-DX, D-tect’s newest product, is smaller and more visually innocuous.  The Rad-DX also has novel mesh-networking abilities that allow an operator to monitor multiple radiation detectors in real time or look at past event logs.   
The Rad-D is easily mounted to a wall or pole and monitors for radiation in real time.
D-tect Systems is a supplier of advanced radiation and chemical detection equipment sold around the world.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Radioactive Contamination in Consumer Products

Early this year the home retail chain Bed Bath & Beyond recalled over 200 shipments of a brushed steel tissue box holder.  The stir caused by the recall inspired great headlines like this one from Gizmodo1:

Time to decorate! I'll take this potpourri urn, these palm frond bookends, a nice neutral-colored bathmat, and WHY IS THIS TISSUE BOX EMITTING DANGEROUS RADIATION?!!
The recalled tissue box from Bed Bath & Beyond. source
In reality, radiation contamination in consumer products is no laughing matter, and this is no isolated case.  Contaminated consumer products have been traded between many countries, and a wide range of products have been identified. 
In 2009, Wal-Mart was fined almost $400,000 by the Nuclear Regulatory Committee for exit signs containing radioactive material2.  500 sets of radioactive elevator buttons were found in France in 20083. A few cheese graters turned up in Michigan containing cobalt-60, the same isotope found in the Bed Bath & Beyond’s tissue box holders. Even a batch of 1000 La-Z-Boy recliners was found to have radioactive metal brackets in 19984.  Due to the common occurrence of radiation in consumer products, the US government even set up a Nuclear Material Events Database in 1990.  Since then over 20,000 cases of radiation releases have been documented5.
The additional radiation exposure to consumers of these products is generally low level but still a cause for concern.  The tissue boxes were estimated to expose consumers using bathrooms with the boxes to the equivalent of a few extra chest x-rays per year.  Unexpected radiation sources add up: chronic exposure of even low doses of radiation can lead to cataracts, cancer and birth defects, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A 2005 study of more than 6,000 Taiwanese who lived in apartments built with radioactive reinforcing steel from 1983 to 2005 showed a statistically significant increase in leukemia and breast cancer 6.
The question remains: if we don’t carry a radiation detector with us every time we go shopping, how will we know which products to avoid?  The solution has to involve better detection along increasingly complex supply chains.  Most of the tainted metal introduced into consumer products comes from contaminated batches of scrap metal, sometimes containing radiation acquired in nuclear power activities.  As this metal travels is formed, shaped, and implemented in products, too few check points are involved to catch radiation.  Radiation detectors need to become part of the manufacturing process, not just a safeguard against large foreign radiation sources.  And due to the wide range of consumer products tainted by radioactive materials, detectors need to screen more products. 
With new guideless and increased detection during manufacturing and distribution, we can finally be confident that our next hot buy won’t really be hot.
D-tect Systems is a supplier of advanced radiation and chemical detection equipment sold around the world.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Solar Radiation - the Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful

As spring arrives in the northern hemisphere, people look forward to more sun; longer daylight hours, plant growth, and the chance of getting a tan.  This year, however, the media has been casting the sun in a whole different light.  The affects of powerful solar events during the last few months have caused some to wonder if the sun has a dark side.
The cycles of the earth are very familiar to us – seasons, calendars, tides.  The sun also has a cyclical nature, but many of these events still stump scientists.  The sun undergoes a solar cycle (or solar magnetic activity cycle) every 11 years.  This cycle is evidenced by the number of sunspots (small dark areas on the surface of the sun) that appear near the equator of the sun.  Sunspots are an indication of solar activity – scientists believe that they are caused by the electromagnetic fields knotting up as they move around the sun.  Since the solar maximum is predicted for next year, solar activity is nearly at its peak.
The solar cycle also causes changes closer to home.  Frequent solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) unleash huge waves of solar radiation during the peak of the cycle.  In fact, just last month a huge solar flare bombarded the earth with charged particles.  This event measured in as the largest solar radiation storm since 2003.  The effects of this storm and others like it have been widespread and occasionally serious – they can cause spacecraft electronics to malfunction, disrupt power grids, and even cause increased corrosion on fuel pipelines.
The good news about solar radiation storms is they cause very little increase in background radiation levels.  The earth’s atmosphere does a good job of blocking solar radiation, even in increased amounts.  Unless you are doing a good deal of flying (at higher altitudes the atmosphere is less effective at blocking radiation) or are visiting regions near the Antarctic, you won’t have any measureable exposure over the normal amount.  If you’d like more information on the threats solar storms can cause, check out this paper by James Marusek.
National Geographic
Even if they can cause damage, solar radiation storms have a silver lining – these events create some of the most striking auroras ever seen.  The Northern Lights (as well as those in the southern hemisphere) are caused charged particles colliding with the upper atmosphere.  For some great National Geographic images of auroras caused by a solar storm, visit this link.
As the sun strengthens this spring, remember that the news you hear about solar events may not all be bad after all.
D-tect Systems is a supplier of advanced radiation and chemical detection equipment sold around the world.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Hospital Radiation Risks Uncovered

There is no doubt that the U.S. spends a lot of money on antiterrorism efforts. Estimates vary greatly, but some experts have put the cost of efforts since 9/11 at over $3.3 trillion1 . The question remains: is it enough? Millions of dollars are spent on foreign operations and border protection to keep threats out of the United States.  But threats arising from negligence inside the U.S. are on the rise according to new research findings disclosed recently in congressional hearings.
An article released last week by the New York Times documents the results of hospital audits where large amounts of radioactive materials are used and stored.  The testimony of security experts included comments that hospital radioactive materials are much more vulnerable to theft or tampering than in other industries. 
Hospital equipment utilizing radiation may cause a threat if not properly secured.  source
Evidence of these weaknesses includes poor security of radioactive supplies (several hospitals had lock combinations for radiation store rooms written right on the door posts) and outdated tracking technology for radioactive materials in use. On top of the physical security underpinnings, a distinct lack of training security personnel exists to guard supplies or deal with threats. 
The real danger in these patterns of loose security is that even small amounts or weak radioactive materials can be very dangerous.  Dirty bombs can be created that disperse tiny amounts of radiation over large areas with dire consequences – contamination (and fear of contamination) could render the location of dispersion vacant for many years. We need to be sure that the United States is not only safe from radioactive materials entering our borders, but also safe from within. 
To read the entire article, visit this link.  For more information on radiation basics and how much radiation constitutes a risk, visit the Radiation Safety page on the D-tect Systems website.
D-tect Systems is a supplier of advanced radiation and chemical detection equipment sold around the world.