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This Radiation is Okay because it is Natural

I have heard this statement before and it came to mind again this morning when I read the following in a news article “Like all radioactive material, the gamma radiation from Cobalt-60 can cause cancer if ingested by humans, especially if it occurs due to leaks from the nuc­lear plant that can cause contamination in water bodies.”
The statement made me shake my head and smile at the same time. Let’s break down the statement. I first have to admit, though, that I don’t know what “water bodies” are. Perhaps they are bodies of water – like a lake or pond? I’m not sure.
The statement is true insofar as gamma radiation from cobalt-60 has the potential to cause cancer if ingested by humans. The cancer risk is not increased; however, if it is cobalt-60 in leaking coolant from nuclear power plants. If it is liquid cobalt-60, it is liquid cobalt-60. It doesn’t matter where it comes from.
The amount of cobalt-60 does matter. But, if you have X amount of radioactivity in nuclear power coolant and that same amount of radioactivity in a research laboratory, it carries the same potential risk if it is all ingested.
The same principle applies when it comes to volumes of liquid – I say this because of other news items I’ve read. If you have X amount of radioactivity in a glass of water and that same amount of radioactivity in a backyard pool, if you drink all the water in the glass or all the water in the pool, the radioactivity carries the same potential risk.
I spoke to a reporter about this one time. He said that over 300,000 gallons of water were contaminated with a radioactive material. He thought this sounded very hazardous. I asked him how much radioactive material was in the water. He didn’t know, but he knew that 300,000 gallons of water were contaminated. I tried to explain that the 300,000 gallons of water didn’t matter – that the amount of radioactive material present is what posed the risk. A bit like dropping an Alka Seltzer® in a glass of water versus this 300,000 gallons – the amount makes a big difference.
So, let’s always start on the same ground when we read statements like the one in the first paragraph. Let’s ask “What is the amount of the radioactive material?” and “What is the potential risk from that amount of radioactive material?” When you receive an answer like “Well, there are 300,000 gallons of contaminated water,” recognize that this is not the answer to your questions.
Back to the title of this blog – it also doesn’t matter whether the radioactivity is natural or human-generated, what matters is the type of radioactive material and the amount.