Rochester Radiation Expert Joins Homeland Security Effort

June 18, 2003

            The University of Rochester’s radiation safety officer is one of the founding members of a Homeland Security Committee created by the Health Physics Society (HPS) to help the public, government officials, and emergency personnel prevent or cope with a terrorist incident involving radiation, such as the detonation of a radioactive “dirty bomb.”

            P. Andrew Karam, Ph.D., a radiation expert who is a frequent spokesman for scientific societies on radiation risks and issues, is one of several HPS officials who helped health physicist Allen Brodsky of Georgetown create the committee. This week Karam and other committee members are in Tampa., Fl., at the annual meeting of HPS, which is devoting discussion on Wednesday, June 19, to homeland security issues.

At the HPS meeting scientists will discuss the emergency response to Sept. 11, review model safety programs, and discuss potential new instruments to enhance radiation safety. The team will also talk about warning the public in case of danger, preventing the theft of radiological sources, and preventing fear and panic among citizens in case of emergency.

            Karam says that most “dirty bombs” or potential terrorist actions involving radiation would cause much more fear than physical danger.

            “If there ever is a radiological attack, the death toll from bad information is likely to be far greater than that from radiation itself,” says Karam. “It’s likely that no one would get sick or die, but a whole city could be shut down by a small level of contamination. There could be traffic accidents as people flee the city unnecessarily, and hospitals could be swamped by people who say they feel ill, even without any link to radiation.”

            While the homeland security committee is focusing on the safety of the United States, Karam is also helping to organize a new HPS group, Radiation Safety Without Borders, designed to enhance radiation safety around the world. The new group, the brainchild of HPS President George Anastas of New Mexico Tech, plans to offer advice to other nations about safe storage and transportation of radioactive materials, about keeping materials out of the wrong hands, and about training and other concerns.

            “It’s like the group Doctors Without Borders; we’re using our expertise to help people in other countries. This will help keep the whole world safer as well,” Karam says.

            “Radiation safety affects a lot of people, even in the least developed countries. There are many hospitals in the world where people are not using X-ray machines correctly. Many places have access to nuclear medicine, but not everyone knows how to do the procedures correctly. Even fewer places know how to regulate the procedures and materials correctly.”

            One question that Karam has already fielded involves the best way to measure the radiation dose to flight crews. Because the atmosphere is thinner at high altitudes, passengers on jets get more radiation from the Sun and cosmic rays than people on the ground. “I get more radiation from flying to meetings than I do on the job as a radiation safety officer,” says Karam, who carries a dosimeter – a device to measure radiation exposure – whenever he travels. Karam recently helped airlines based in Europe develop better ways to determine radiation exposure to their crews.

            Another question came from medical personnel, who asked about radiation exposure for employees who help with X-rays, for instance to hold a child or support someone with a badly broken limb. Karam told the group about regulations in the United States, explaining under what circumstances it’s considered okay for nurses to be exposed, when they should wear a lead apron, and when someone else should fill in instead.

            As part of his work with the Western New York HPS chapter, this fall Karam will travel to Lithuania, home to the world’s two largest Chernobyl-style nuclear reactors. Karam says that when the Soviet Union pulled out of the Baltic nations, officials took most of their nuclear expertise with them, leaving a dangerous gap in knowledge that health physicists in the Rochester and Buffalo areas are determined to bridge.

            Other HPS chapters are “adopting” other nations, including Panama, Estonia, Costa Rica, and the Philippines. “Generally, countries with a weak radiation safety infrastructure that are logical transfer points where radiological and nuclear materials could be shipped to or from, are the first to get our attention,” says Karam.

            The U.S. State Department is supporting the RSWB effort, along with the International Atomic Energy Agency and other U.S. agencies.

            For his knowledge Karam draws on eight years of experience in the nuclear power program of the U.S. Navy. He attended Naval Nuclear Power School and Naval Chemistry and Radiological Controls School and spent three years on the USS Plunger, a fast-attack nuclear submarine. There he became the only enlisted sailor in the entire Pacific Fleet qualified to carry out the highest-level watches for both nuclear and non-nuclear stations. He also served for two years as staff instructor at the Navy’s nuclear reactor prototype training unit.

            Karam’s research has focused on how the level of Earth’s background radiation has changed throughout history. He has studied the effects of Earth’s radiation level on evolution, the effects of radiation from sources such as exploding stars and gamma ray bursts in space, and the health implications of repeated exposure to diagnostic medical procedures like CT scans.

            A member of the Radiation Research Society and the American Nuclear Society, Karam works regularly with the American Institute of Physics to communicate with the media about nuclear and radiation safety. He has written dozens of fact sheets about radiation, a series of 200 articles about science and society, several articles to improve the knowledge of radiation-safety professionals, and a book, Rig Ship for Ultra Quiet: Life on a nuclear attack submarine during the Cold War, that will be available next month. He is also a member of the board of directors of the Health Physics Society.

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