Imagine being a first responder heading to an emergency event knowing full well that you could be exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. You do what you’ve been trained to do because it’s right. Yet in the back of your mind, you can’t help but wonder if you’re going to end up with long-term health problems as a result of radiation exposure. Such a scenario is exactly what researchers at the Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina are hoping to prevent.
Researchers at the Department of Energy (DOE) lab are currently working on a project involving what are known as radiochromic compounds, compounds that change color when exposed to radiation. They hope to eventually come up with a number of compounds that can be integrated into first responder clothing and equipment in order to provide fast detection of radiation.
Radiochromic compounds are nothing new, explains California-based Rock West Solutions. They have been an integral part of radiation detection since the 1970s. The compounds are built into the body-worn sensors that workers in the nuclear industry have been using for years. Unfortunately, while the sensors are more than adequate for non-emergency situations, they don’t work well enough to keep first responders safe in the event of a radiation emergency.
Much Faster Detection
The sensors worn by nuclear workers do detect radiation, but at a rather slow pace. This isn’t a critical limitation because nuclear workers already wear special suits that protect them against mild to moderate exposure. Firefighters and other first responders do not have that luxury. Therefore, they need sensors that work a lot more quickly.
Researchers have come up with a couple of test compounds that seem to do the trick. However, the compounds need some tweaking. They also need more rigorous testing to verify their viability for the task at hand.
In theory, the compounds can be added to the dye used to color fabrics. Those specially dyed fabrics could then be used to make uniforms and protective gear for first responders. Exposure to dangerous levels of radiation would cause the garments to turn various colors in response to the level of exposure at any given time.
Imagine knowing within just a few minutes that an accident scene contains high levels of radiation. First responders would know to immediately evacuate and cordon off the area. They would be safer for that knowledge, and so would others within the same general vicinity.
More Accurate Detection
Another challenge that researchers are up against is finding a compound that reacts effectively to dangerous radiation but does not respond to less harmful ultraviolet or gamma radiation from the sun. The need for more accurate testing in this regard should be obvious. First responders do not want protective clothing that changes color when it’s not supposed to. They don’t need the radiation equivalent of a false alarm when they are trying to handle a legitimate emergency.
To date, testing has come up with a number of compounds that seem to work well enough. They are limited to a single exposure, so there is still a long way to go before researchers come up with compounds that can be integrated into first responder equipment and used time and again. But they will eventually get there.
First responders have a lot on their plates. During radiation emergencies, there is an added level of risk that just makes their jobs harder. The good news is that the DOE is working on the problem. Ongoing research will benefit first responders by eventually coming up with compounds capable of protecting them against radiation exposure.