LST Intro


to protect yourself

to protect your family

to make reasonable social and political choices

By Lauriston S. Taylor

This material is copyrighted © 1990, 1996, but is available for educational use without permission of the author. A full version of this document is available for downloading. Any portion of the text may be used, with proper referencing to the author, only for non-profit or educational purpose. For any other use, please contact the author or editors of this work.

Table of Contents


The problem. Today, for many people, the word RADIATION evokes atomic bombs, nuclear power plant accidents, nuclear wastes, or radioactive fallout; it summons up the specter of cancer. If they think further about radiation at all, they are more likely to worry about it rather than try to understand it, objectively and constructively. When people are asked about their sources of information on radiation, most will cite newspapers, television, popular magazines, or just casual gossip. These media rarely try to educate with facts; they tend to emphasize the dangerous and sensational to appeal to emotions. Thus, it is not surprising that people tend to base their opinions of radiation on the well-publicized effects of large exposures from weapons or major accidents. Often they do not distinguish between such large exposures and everyday medical or industrial exposures to radiation or those encountered in the natural environment.

This book is designed to enhance your knowledge, to help you make both sound personal decisions about your own or family members' radiation exposures and sound socio-political decisions about activities which might carry some chance of exposing other people to radiation. It is written by a radiation protectionist who has spent a career studying the science of radiation and its effects and developing guidelines for protecting us all from radiation injury. There are some people who think that those who are familiar with a subject must be biased about it and cannot be considered a reliable source of information. Such suspicious people must reach the logical conclusion that only the ignorant and inexperienced can be trusted to help when decisions are to be made about complex technical matters. That is patently absurd.

If knowledgeable and experienced radiation protectionists have a bias, it is that uncontrolled use of ionizing radiation can be hazardous -- so can uncontrolled use of almost anything, including common nutrients like salt and pepper. Radiation protectionists -- some thousands in the US -- devote their collective knowledge, skills, and efforts, to developing ways to make as safe as practicable the use of radiation in the service of mankind. We must all recognize that there is no such thing as absolute safety in any human activity. Indeed, the uses of ionizing radiation today involve smaller risks, overall, than those associated with many activities of everyday life, including riding in cars, taking baths, and climbing stairs.

Since, literally, no one in the world can be free from exposure to ionizing radiation, it is important that we all acquire at least some elementary information on the subjects of radiation and its effects, relying for guidance on those whose life work has enabled them to best understand it. This book, based on well-established and publicly available facts, attempts to provide such information -- the kind of information that may enlighten a discussion, let us say, of the role of x-rays as a part of dental hygiene. It is addressed to the reader whose knowledge of radiation may have been framed by images of mushroom clouds, the ruins of Nagasaki, or cartoon mutant monsters. It aims to help replace irrational fear with fact-based respect for radiation.

This book consists of three parts.

Part 1 provides a simple, broad-brush treatment of what ionizing radiation is, the different kinds of radiation and their properties, and how radiation is absorbed in the various materials we use to protect people from excessive exposure. It tells about the history of radiation and radiation protection philosophy and practices. And it describes the many sources of radiation to which the people of the US, and the world, are exposed.

Part 2 provides some more detailed technical and medical information in language accessible to all. It is designed to answer some of the questions frequently asked by the public and to correct some of the errors made by the media. Both Part 1 and Part 2 are based on facts that have been well-established in peer-reviewed scientific reports.

Part 3 deals with electrical energy, the shortage of which is world-wide. The generation of electricity using nuclear power is adequately within current technical capability, understanding, and control, but it is a subject fraught with political, social, and emotional issues. This book deals only with the technical aspects for which specific information is available.

Since this book is addressed to the general reader, who comes to it with no specific knowledge of radiation technology, the technical terms used must be defined. They are discussed and explained in everyday language as they occur.

The theses of this book, outlined briefly, are:

  1. Radioactivity -- and hence radiation --exists in virtually everything and is, therefore, part of life.
  2. Excessive consumption of, or exposure to, otherwise useful substances or agents presents some degree of risk to life.
  3. The relationship between radiation and risk, indeed their very definitions, may be distorted through ignorance or to serve some purpose other than enlightenment. Such distortions can lead to unnecessary concern and may cause actual harm
  4. The best way to remedy this situation is through education. Those who are informed must enable others to learn the facts and to understand what the facts mean, so that we all can make reasonable decisions on health care, environmental control, power supply, and other social issues.

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