Turned up to eleven: Fair and Balanced

Monday, June 10, 2002

Psychosomatic Radiation Sickness

A bit of personal experience that is relevant to the fear of radiation exposure. I work in a biology lab, and I have used radioactivity as a "tracer" in several different types of experiments. I have used [32]P and tritium (3H). Now tritium is pretty harmless, as long as you don't ingest it (it is very dangerous if you do). From my reading of Tom Clancy (Sum of All Fears), I know that watches with glow in the dark hands often contain tritium. [32]P is pretty dangerous from an environmental exposure perspective, an needs to be handled behind a thick plexiglass shield or in a lead container at all times. I was always super extra careful about this, and I always had a visceral fear/distaste for handling these materials. Even when I was being very safe, however, I noticed that I would suddenly start feeling pains and aches in various parts of my body both as I was working with the nuclear materials, and for a day or so afterwards. There is, for me at least, a constant voice in the back of my head saying "Did you put that cap on carefully? Are you getting exposed to deadly radiation right now?" Of course, I was never exposed to biologically significant levels of radiation (here is a chart that illustrates the important levels), and was in considerably more danger from the biological toxins and chemicals that I used daily, but such are the vagaries of psychology. My suspicion is that it is the sensory deprivation that enhances the fear factor. You can smell noxious chemical fumes, and see (and smell) bacterial culture spills, but radiation is odorless, and colorless, and penetrates normal protective gear (labcoat, goggles), making it extra scary. I was listening to NPR Talk of the Nation, and they were discussing a radioactive material accident in Brazil in 1987. An interesting note in the discussion was that apparently one of the big problems they had in dealing with this accident was the high rates of psychosomatic radiation sickness clogging emergency rooms in the area, making it much more difficult to care for people who really needed it (many of whom, of course, had problems unrelated to the spill). Some thing to think about.