Health Physics – Education Is Fundamental in the Next 50 Years

D.J. Allard (PA DEP Bureau of Radiation Protection)

The 50th anniversary of the Health Physics Society provides us an opportunity to celebrate, and a time to reflect on our history. It should also be a time to look forward, attempt to assess the path we are on, and suggest where we may be headed. The practice of health physics is an interdisciplinary field. A well known theoretical physicist told me many years ago, "I could never be a health physicist – you have to know too much!" And truly, we need to have appreciable knowledge of: mathematics, nuclear physics, chemistry, radiobiology, epidemiology, occupational health and environmental sciences, recommendations, standards, laws, regulations, instrumentation, emergency response, just to name a few. Additional knowledge is required when we get into our areas of practice in medical, industrial, research, reactor, accelerator and other applications of radiation and nuclear technology. When asked to participate in this session, I accepted more as an amateur historian. I also happen to be as old as the HPS, and there is a slight chance I'll be around when it celebrates its centennial. As we all know, the practice of radiation safety goes back to the late 1890s when x rays and radioactivity were discovered, and applications and use in the early 1900s caused many undesirable effects, including premature death. The standards for protection against radium and x rays developed rather slowly, and were really not codified until the mid-20th century. One driver for that was shortly after WWII with the wide availability man-made radionuclides. Similarly, the field of health physics came to be formally institutionalized at this time. Looking back, great progress has been made in the past 50 years with respect to our knowledge of biological effects, modeling of radionuclides in the body and environment, and our standards of practice. When monitoring radiation, we use the same basic instrument radiation detectors, but the display and acquisition of data has been revolutionized by major innovations with electronics. Reflecting on where we are today with wireless and internet communication technology, and the greatly increased access to information, we're no doubt beyond what most could have dreamed in the mid-1950s. Further, we have emerging technology such as the medical applications of fusion CT-PET, non-film digital imaging, interventional radiology, IMRT, and (non-medical) human use of backscatter x-ray security screening. More broadly, given the increased demand for clean and reliable sources of energy, nuclear power is now expanding in developing nations. I anticipate the same domestically in the future. All of these applications of radiation and nuclear science present unique protection challenges, with respect to workers, the public and environment. Further, I fear global terrorism will be with us for decades to come, requiring an adequate level of radiological emergency preparedness. Looking ahead to the next 50 years, what concerns me most boils down to one word – education. Given the cut-backs in educational support of health physics graduate programs, canned software programs for environmental pathway analysis, shielding, internal and external dosimetry, black-box instrumentation, the need to have occupational health and safety duties shared with routine work, and the public's great distrust of technology and fear of radiation – we must focus on training and education. We have to ensure the in-depth knowledge of our specialized field is passed to future generations, and, the public has a greater understanding of the relative risk of radiation versus others normally encountered. That is the course we must chart, and it is my sincere hope the Health Physics Society helps to navigate the waters to the year 2055 and beyond!

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