Lab's Tritium Releases Pose No Risk to Science Hall

by Jes™s Mena

Smoke alarms in the average household pose more risk of biological damage or cancer due to radiation than does exposure to minuscule amounts of tritium in the air around the Lawrence Hall Science, according to Paul Lavely, director of the campus Office of Radiation Safety.

Lavely's assessment came last year at the request of some UC staff and has been provided to citizen's groups expressing concern about the National Tritium Labeling Facility at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

These local residents argue that radioactive tritium emitted from the neighboring LBNL could pose a hazard to children. Some have even asked the Berkeley Unified School District to consider banning field trips to Lawrence Hall of Science.

Berkeley campus and LBNL officials are confident that emissions from the laboratory are not hazardous. In addition, the laboratory has agreed to have an independent third party monitor its emissions to verify their conclusions.

This call for a third-party monitoring has been welcomed by both city and school officials.

Lavely has independently reviewed the monitoring data that LBNL has compiled over the years. He is clear on the extremely limited nature of the risk posed by the emissions.

"A child sleeping 6 feet from a smoke detector receives as much radiation from that detector in one night as he would in a typical visit of two or three hours to the Lawrence Hall of Science," said Lavely.

"And the child is exposed to smoke detectors daily throughout the year."

Lavely explained that a typical household smoke detector contains Americium 241, a radioactive element that emits minute amounts of alpha radiation that ionizes the air in the smoke detector. When smoke enters the detector chamber, it interferes with the ionization of the air and triggers the alarm.

And the campus radiation safety officer said that there is also little risk for Lawrence Hall of Science staff from this source. He points out that passengers on commercial air flights are exposed to increased cosmic rays because of the altitude at which aircraft fly. The amount of radiation that a full-time staff member is exposed to annually is comparable to what a passenger receives in the course of 45 miles of a commercial flight, he said.

In an effort to demonstrate their sensitivity to neighborhood concerns, LBNL officials have begun to develop a plan for independent monitoring of the emissions. Preliminary talks have already begun with the state Department of Health Services, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the city of Berkeley's Toxics Management Program to develop the plan.

LBNL officials said they are willing to spend up $100,000 for the independent monitoring program. Furthermore, they are committed to making any changes in the facility that may be recommended after the independent data is assessed.

"Although we consider our monitoring program to be extremely rigorous, and we are confident that our emissions are well within nationally accepted safe exposure levels and regulatory guidelines, we welcome additional sampling by independent agencies, which we trust will corroborate our findings," said LBNL Director Charles Shank.

LBNL uses tritium in its National Tritium Labeling Facility to "tag" molecules so their functions and reactions can be traced in laboratory experiments throughout the country.

These labeled molecules are invaluable in the research to develop new drugs for the treatment of diseases like AIDS, Alzheimer's disease and breast cancer. The National Institutes of Health funds the labeling facility.


Copyright 1997, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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