Public Radiation Protection
Protection of the public is an integral part of many of the Agency’s activities. For example, the criteria that are applied to waste management practices take into account the impact on workers who handle the waste and also the impact on the public who may come into contact with the waste. The Regulations for the Safe Transport of Radioactive Material also address protection of workers and the public. Radioactive discharges can have an impact on both the environment and the people who live in and use the environment. Therefore standards are needed for protection of both the environment and the public.
Radon in Homes
Radon is a naturally-occurring radioactive gas produced from the radioactive decay of the uranium that is found in varying amounts in all rocks and soils. As a gas, radon can move through the soil and, when it enters a building, it can sometimes build up to unacceptably high concentrations. For most people, radon is the major contributor to their annual effective dose. In 2008, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation reported that the estimated global annual average individual effective dose from all sources of radiation is approximately 3.0 mSv. Radon, is responsible for approximately 40% of this annual dose (1.15 mSv). The average dose is not the typical dose, and indoor radon concentrations can vary by several orders of magnitude, depending on local geology, building construction practices and environmental factors. In some extreme cases, the annual effective dose from radon can be of the order of several hundred millisievert (mSv), or greater.
Long term exposure to radon has been shown to increase the risk of lung cancer. Currently, the best available estimate is that indoor radon exposure is responsible for between 3% and 13% of all lung cancer cases, which corresponds to approximately 170,000 fatal lung cancers worldwide every year. It is also known that the risk of lung cancer from radon is much greater for smokers than for non-smokers
The IAEA safety standard Radiation Protection and Safety of Radiation Sources: International Basic Safety Standards (the BSS) contains strengthened requirements in relation to protection of the public. This strengthening of requirements reflects the importance of radon as a source of radiation exposure and is in keeping with the high priority given to this issue by other international organizations. In 2009, the World Health Organization published the WHO Handbook on Indoor Radon that considers radon from a public health perspective and presents recommendations on radon health risk reduction.
With regard to public exposure due to radon indoors, the BSS require that general information on radon, including information on health risks and the synergy with smoking, be made available to the public and other interested parties. IAEA Member States are also required to determine whether an action plan for controlling exposure due to radon indoors is necessary, and, if so, to establish and implement such an action plan.
A number of Member States have started activities to quantify and reduce public exposure to radon indoors. Many other Member States are only now starting to evaluate the exposure of their population to radon indoors. Conducting these evaluations is particularly important for those countries with geological formations that favour the production and transport of radon through the soil.
The IAEA is presently developing a safety guide Protection of the Public against Indoor Exposure to Natural Sources of Radiation to assist national authorities in reducing exposure to radon. In addition, in response to requests from Member States, national and regional training courses are organized on topics such as developing national radon strategies, planning a national radon survey and on strategies to reduce radon levels in dwellings. Such courses are aimed at staff of regulatory bodies, public health authorities and building professionals.
While radon normally represents the largest contributor to individual dose, this source of exposure is also the most amenable to control. Proven and effective building practices exist to limit the accumulation of radon in new buildings and cost-effective corrective actions have been developed to reduce high radon concentrations in existing buildings. Thus, while radon is one of the largest contributors to the worldwide collective effective dose from all sources of radiation, this can be reduced through the implementation of appropriate strategies.
Certain products that are on sale to the public contain small amounts of radioactive material that have been added for functional reasons or because of their physical or chemical properties. These include certain smoke detectors for use in private homes that contain small amounts of americium-241. In addition some high intensity lamps that have applications as xenon car lighting, metal halide high wattage lighting used outdoors such as in sports stadiums and special lighting used in theatres and in cinemas may contain small amounts of thorium-232, krypton-85 or tritium.
The colour of gemstones may be intensified or altered by irradiation. This process can happen naturally over a long period of time but artificial irradiation can be used to enhance colour, and therefore increase the commercial value of gemstones. The irradiation process most commonly used is to expose the stones to neutrons in a nuclear research reactor. This causes the production of radioactive material (referred to as ‘activation products’) within the gemstone structure. The half-life of these activation products is normally short i.e. of the order of a few weeks, but in some instances it may be much longer.
These and other similar products are readily available to the public in many Member States, including via the internet. Because it is virtually impossible to control these products beyond the point of sale, it is important that their use or disposal does not represent an unacceptably high level of risk. The Agency is presently developing guidance for producers and suppliers and for the regulatory body on appropriate procedures to ensure safety. This guidance is based on the requirements outlined in the BSS.
The IAEA also addresses radiation protection of the public through its activities in the following areas:
- Control of radiation sources
- Environmental assessment
- Transport safety
- Waste management
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