Recently someone sent me a link to a YouTube video of someone with a radiation detector walking around the mountains. They were extremely upset over the fact that their radiation detector was detecting radiation and no one was doing anything about it. The person that sent the video knew that I used to use radiation detectors as part of my job and wanted to know what was up?
They live towards the west coast up in the mountains and regularly took radiation measurements as part of their weekly schedule. They were convinced that this was because of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
After watching for a few minutes, I decided that this was probably a radon temperature inversion.
Radon temperature inversion. Sounds weird, yeah? This is where radon gas gets trapped in a low-lying area due to the weather and causes radiation detectors to get angry. The poster seemed to think that a perfectly normal phenomenon was attributable to the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Nuclear Generating Station a few years ago rather than a common natural phenomena associated with the exact type of location that they live in… namely, a low lying snowy area with mountains.
Why snow? Well, a temperature inversion is where warm air blankets a low lying area, usually in mountainous regions. There is a pocket of much colder air in the valley between the mountains. The warm air will trap pollution and radon gas in the cold area region. We can summarize easily that since it just snowed, the ground temperature is cold. It’s not a huge leap of faith to assume that there is quite possibly a warm air blanket above the guy that’s causing all of his concern. I’ll talk about radon gas in a minute but first I want to focus on a reply to the video.
One particular response made me type the following up and I decided to save it for posterity’s sake since I’m sure I’ll see it again. The person in question was reading 60 cpm on their radiation detector and wanted to know if that was bad.
Here are my thoughts:
Counts per minute has to be put in terms of the isotope or ray energy that you’re measuring for it to have any real use for calculations. That being said, assuming worst case isotope (Cobalt-60 due to gamma ray window effect) for humans and assuming this is your total effective dose during that time… doing the math gives me your new yearly exposure level at 1.5 times the worldwide average exposure level. Probably about what people that live in high altitudes like Denver, CO get. In other words, perfectly normal.
Now before you freak out…
Assuming that you got ALL OF THAT EXPOSURE IN ONE BURST (as opposed to over x years where your body has time to repair so this is actually a meaningless thought exercise) it would take over 200 years worth of that to have any symptoms of radiation sickness.
Neat fact: Every year, you get about 300mRem of dose. About 200mRem of that is due to radon. This is pretty much unavoidable as radon is heavier than air and collects in low-lying areas. You can protect yourself against excessive radon exposure by purchasing home detection kits for your basement. Radon is produced by the radioactive decay of radium which is present in soil and rocks.
Sorry, no escaping that one. We live on planet Earth and there’s radium on this planet.
The remaining 100mRem is attributed to cosmic radiation. Since the Big Bang happened, this one is pretty unavoidable too. Luckily, our atmosphere protects us from most of this. The remaining amount is what gives us that dose. You actually get radiation exposure from flying in an airplane due to less atmosphere protecting you. Neat, huh?
Let’s recap: If you live in the mountains and occasionally see radiation spikes after it snows, you’re probably ok. Get your basement checked for radon and install fans if necessary. Radiation is a part of everything so Don’t Panic. Feel free to email me any questions.