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Radioactive materials irrational fears

  1. Jun 8, 2008 #1
    I know this will sound nuts, because it kind of is, but I though maybe someone could talk some sense into me. I suffer from ocd and irrational fears about radioactive substances. I realize that we are surrounded by and constantly bombarded by radiation. That doesnt bother me. Nor does having x-rays taken bother me. I do however, have a constant nagging fear of coming into contact with a radioactive substance and not knowing it. Thus, then contaminating my home , children, etc. Logically I know this is pretty unlkely but would appreciate some other opinions. I know there are "orphan" sources out there and this frightens me. It seems that I am obsessed with coming into accidental contact with this stuff. Is this likely? And would I be ableto see contamination on my skin like a dust or powder? I have gotten to the point where my life revolves around this fear, and would really appreciate any ideas someone has to get over this. It is so bad now that sometimes just sitting in my home or office I think maybe sometyhing radioactive is on me or is touching me, and I cant escape this though and/or fear. Please help! Thanks!
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  3. Jun 8, 2008 #2

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    You're already radioactive. The potassium in your body is partially composed of K-40, which is radioactive. Remove the potassium, and you die. So there's nothing you can do, I'm afraid.

    One often unappreciated fact is that, unlike most chemical toxins, we can detect radiation at levels millions or billions of times smaller than it takes to kill you. This can skew one's perceptions of relative risks.
  4. Jun 8, 2008 #3
    Not to mention Carbon-14. K-40 is the larger source of radioactivity, but C-14 may seem more familiar and less threatening if you've heard of carbon dating.
  5. Jun 8, 2008 #4
    You could keep reminding yourself that sunlight itself is a form of radiation, and that even the atoms in your own body give off radiation.

    Moreover, you could look at government Environmental Impact Statements for nuclear power plants and see how safe the radiation actually is.
  6. Jun 8, 2008 #5


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    It is very unlikely to come in contact with anything but ordinary background radiation, like the C-14 or K-40 in the body. But that is very low activity.

    Artificial (radioactive) isotopes are strictly controlled in production, distribution and use, but some do get mismanaged or misplaced occasionally. But they are not a form that can easily get in the environment.

    I've worked around plenty of radioactive sources, and I have not ill effects.

    Radioactive sources (radionuclides) are not used in the production of consumer products which you would find in your home or office.
  7. Jun 9, 2008 #6


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    I don't know if this is good advice or not (should ask a psychiatrist!), but if this really bothers you, why don't you just buy a hand-held electronic dosimeter, with which you can check regularly that there is no contamination ? If you really want to get rid of all doubts - but it is going to cost you quite some money - buy a contamination scanner for feet chest and hands like the things that are installed at the entrance of a nuclear installation, which scans in 10 seconds or so whether you have any contamination on you.

    Then you could also ask - I don't know if this is done for the public - to undergo regularly (once a year or so) a whole-body scan in a radiological medical center. This is the kind of examinations I regularly undergo for instance, just to see whether I didn't ingest something radioactive or so. I work regularly with radioactive sources, with beams, and with lightly activated materials, and never got any problems - very rarely there's such an incident, and if it is, it is of very low severity.

    If you're interested in that kind of stuff, a random googling brought me this:

    I couldn't find any pricing information.
  8. Jun 9, 2008 #7


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    This reminds me of an old joke people used to play on students (prohibited nowdays alas). For the physics 101 class or something like that, the lecturer would bring in a lump of depleted uranium in a container, and show it around to the students.

    Then right when he/she is about to retrieve it ... oops it falls out of its container and the lecturer jumps back.

    Works everytime, at least a few students will go white and think they've just been Hiroshima'd. Probably about the most effective tool to make the point about relative scale(s) in radioactivity.
  9. Jun 9, 2008 #8


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    I would like to follow up on what I wrote in my previous post. I think that the OP suffers from being influenced by a lot of anti-nuclear talk (maybe he read too many books by Helen Caldicott :uhh:): radioactivity is invisible, and kills you without you noticing. Well, so do chemical poisons, and worse, biological agents like viruses or bacteria. So if you are affraid that, say, your desk is contaminated with radioactive substances, well, it could be also contaminated with deadly poisons, or with biological agents. In fact, the last thing is much more probable!

    However, although we, as humans, don't notice radiation, compared to chemical or biological threats, radioactive substances are EASILY detected with instruments. It is much easier to detect the presence of radioactive materials (even in tiny and non-dangerous amounts) than it is to detect an unknown virus, for which you need a specific anti-body test.

    So by all means, if this can relieve you, buy a dosimeter and check for yourself.

    Oh, BTW, I moved this thread to nuclear engineering - I was hesitating between that, and medical sciences :smile:
  10. Jun 9, 2008 #9
    I really appreciate everyone's input and time with htis "quirk" of mine. I am feeling a little bit better and I just keep telling myself that logically, there is no way I would encounter any of these types of materials. I guess what scares me the most is the fact you cant see/detect it without instruments. But again, normal everyday people who dont work with these materials dont give radiation a second thought and neither should I.
  11. Jun 9, 2008 #10


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    Normal people who don't work with radioactive materials don't need to worry about them.

    Normal people who do work with radioactive materials respect the fact that radiation exposure is a serious matter, and they use care in what they do, based on my experience. We are taught in school to be careful, and industry, people are constantly reminded to be careful.

    When I visited sites where nuclear fuel is manufactured, the areas where there was hands on work on the nuclear fuel pellets was physically separated from areas where there was no radioactive material. Access was strictly controlled, and everyone would get scanned going out of the area - so no one would go out with contamination. In nuclear power plants, we got scanned going in and out.

    Try not to worry. Like Bobby McFerrin sings - Don't worry. Be happy. :smile:
  12. Jun 9, 2008 #11
    One other thing to remember is that it takes a great deal of radioactivity for most substances you might encounter as an orphan source, which is a sealed source, and not a dust/powder. Now, if you were to encounter one of these sources, open up the shielding to expose the source inside, and try to break it apart, such as what happened in Goiania, Brazil (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goi%C3%A2nia_accident)
  13. Jun 10, 2008 #12
    Ok-one more nutty question/concern. Perhaps I just need to see a psychiatrist-but here goes. Sometimes at home or at work-I worry that plutonium or some other harmful radioactive material has found its way onto my desk, and then I dont wanna touch things on my desk. other times, when I go to restroom to wash my hands, I cant get over the thought that radioactive material may be in the sink, and I am just spreading the contamination all over my hands as I wash. Is this insanity? Are these things even remotely possible? Your responses are greatly appreciated. Also-does anyone have any good ideas how to overcome irrational fears of radioactive substances? Again, anything is appreciated.
  14. Jun 10, 2008 #13


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    Radioactive substances are controlled during production and manufacture. One needs a license in order to obtain and use radioactive materials. When I was a student working with radioactive sources, we were required to check out and check in any radioactives source, which were kept in a locked cabinet in a locked room.

    In the lab area, we passed a radiation detector that was present to detect any radiation on anyone coming and going into the lab area. Most of the time, it detected very low background, less than 1 count every few seconds. Even when sources were present several feet away, the activity was low, and we were careful when we handled sources.

    Pu was produced in a limited number of places, and which are tightly controlled. One is very unlikely to be exposed to Pu in one's home, even if one worked with Pu, which is done with remote handling for the most part. There was hands on work done in assembling and disassembling of nuclear warheads, but that was done under strict security and control.

    Just don't worry about it.
  15. Jun 10, 2008 #14
    Astronuc-I really appreciate your knowledge and expertise. You are helping me and I appreciate greatly. You seem extremely knowledgeable-what is your background?
  16. Jun 10, 2008 #15
    One other question too. I also always have a fear when washing, etc that the water is running through a smoke detector and being contamintaed with amercicium. Is this possible? What would happen if water was run through a smoke detector and then you came into contact with it?
  17. Jun 10, 2008 #16


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    How would water run through a smoke detector? Just don't put your smoke detector in a blender and make a smoke detector flavored milkshake out of it and you'll be fine.

    Anyway, just to make sure one thing is clear, radioactive materials in nature don't come in macroscopic clumps, they come in relatively evenly distributed concentrations of particles per billion. So it isn't really possible to come across, say, a flek of dust composed entirely of uranium.

    Now, I don't want to scare you, but perphaps to redirect your ocd toward something real: depending on where you live, there is a very real issue with radon gas. I happen to live near Limerick, PA, perhaps the most radioactive area in the country. Radon gas was discovered when a worker at the Limerick nuclear plant arrived at work radioactive.

    If you have a basement, where there may be stagnant air, and you live in the eastern US (there are maps that show common areas where there is some concentration) it would be a good idea to test for radon. If it is found, it can easily be mitigated by a fan.
  18. Jun 11, 2008 #17
    Thank you Russ-I appreciate your comments. It helps show the absolute ridiculousness of my disorder which helps. Funny thing is radon gas wouldnt bother me. My father had it in his basement, and I have no problem going into his basement. Its been taken care of, of course, but neverthe less it doesnt scare me. I guess it is just the though or obsession of touching something radioactive or having it "on me" that bothers me. On another note, you and I share a hobby with our astronomy. Lemme ask you this, I am a beginner and use a $100 telescope that is very basic. It has brought me great joy, but I would like to upgrade to something bigger yet easy to use. Any recommendations? Say $1000 or under? Thanks!
  19. Jun 13, 2008 #18


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    Roy, I think your fears are perfectly normal human fears and you shouldn't worry too much about them. We're supposed to be careful and crafty creatures and there is a lot out there that can hurt us. I'm afraid of heights, but I do my job anyway.

    I had a friend in grad school who nuked himself. He was a grad student in biology. Their lab was using radioactive iodine as a tracer for some experiments. They had the sloppy biologist habit of eating in the lab. They checked him for radiation and discovered that he'd ingested radioactive iodine. The cure for this is to eat lots of iodine so that your body has lots of it and it turns over faster. Eventually you excrete it and no problem.

    The problem with iodine is that it gets concentrated in only a single spot in the body and so exposure can hurt that spot (thyroid if I recall). The cure is iodine pills. I don't think they sell them (I haven't looked), but you can eat iodine-rich foods. If this makes you feel a little calmer, then great, here's some food choices:

    kelp, yogurt, milk, eggs.

    And make sure you have iodized salt.
  20. Jun 13, 2008 #19


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    Nuclear engineering.

    I've worked with a variety of radioactive sources as a student, both undergrad and grad. I've done different experiements with a research reactor, and visited several nuclear power plants. I've had several years of experience auditing the manufacture of nuclear fuel, including handling of the ceramic fuel pellets.

    The amount of Am-241 in smoke detector is very small, and water should not be running through a smoke detector.

    One would get wet.

    CarlB's example is unique. Some folks to use radioisotopes, but realize that the student was checked. When using radioactive sources, we observed restrictions on food and drink, i.e. we did not take food or beverages into areas where we used radioactive sources. We had to put our hands, shoes and clothes near a detector when we left the lab area in order to ensure we were not walking out with radioactive particles.
  21. Jun 13, 2008 #20


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    Yes, and I should add that I entered grad school in 1979. Since then people are probably more careful. The grad students back then were warned and they knew that eating in the lab was forbidden, but they ignored the rules. They didn't have the cool equipment Astronuc describes, which eliminates some of the need to have people follow the rules by catching them if they don't.

    When I was younger, I could never figure out why my hands were so much more filthy than everybody else's. I always washed my hands before meals, and again afterwards. My friends didn't do either. I just chalked it up to my hands being naturally greasy or something.

    Then I began making stuff out of glass as a hobby (kiln work). It turns out that my friends leave huge, greasy fingerprints whenever they pick up art glass. I no longer believe that their hands are clean. I suspect that if my buddy graduate student had washed his hands before eating, his contamination problems would not have happened.

    I don't like heights and when I first was faced with going up a scissors lift I refused to work and insisted on going right back down. The thing swung from side to side about 6 inches. I was scared it would tip over and I would fall fifty feet to my death. So I went and did internet research and found that scissor lifts are involved in accidents, but they happen due to incredibly stupid maneuvers which we certainly were not going to do. I.e., you tie your scissor lift to a structure at the top, and then drive off still fully extended, but forget to untie it. Ooops. In fact, tying your scissors lift will reduce the amount it swings around, but is forbidden by OSHA rules because of this problem. And I learned that scissor lifts do not tip over without a reason because their very heavy batteries are at the very bottom of the lift. After learning about them, understanding made my fear mostly went away, but I still don't like going up them and if I have to wait, and don't have something to do for a while, I will think morbid thoughts about earthquakes.
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