McMaster ra­di­a­tion pro­fes­sor fea­tured in TVO doc­u­men­tary

The Hamilton Spectator - - LOCAL - NI­COLE O’REILLY nor­eilly@thes­ 905-526-3199 | @Ni­coleatTheSpec

How much of a risk are we to ex­po­sure to dan­ger­ous lev­els of ra­di­a­tion?

That’s part of what Fiona McNeill, McMaster Univer­sity’s di­rec­tor of ra­di­a­tion sciences, is try­ing to an­swer with her work. The pro­fes­sor and re­searcher is part of a doc­u­men­tary called “RISK FAC­TOR” pre­mièring Aug. 2 at 9 p.m. on TVO. McNeill is among a group of ex­perts in­ter­viewed in the doc­u­men­tary by film­maker Robert Lang, un­pack­ing the true level of risk in var­i­ous as­pects of our lives and how to bet­ter as­sess and face those risks. The Spec­ta­tor re­cently spoke with McNeill about her par­tic­i­pa­tion in the doc­u­men­tary and her work. Her re­sponses have been edited for length.

Spec­ta­tor: How and why did you de­cide to par­tic­i­pate in “RISK FAC­TOR”?

Fiona McNeill: It started about two years ago, I had just come off re­search leave and an email came to my in­box from a re­searcher (for the doc­u­men­tary) try­ing to find a ra­di­a­tion sci­en­tist to talk about risk. I de­cided I would meet with them. The tim­ing was in­ter­est­ing be­cause I had been start­ing to think that com­mu­ni­ca­tion in sci­ence is be­com­ing ever more im­por­tant.

Spec­ta­tor: What can you tell us about your work?

Fiona McNeill: I’m a pro­fes­sor at McMaster, and spend about 40 per cent of my time teach­ing mostly at the se­nior level. About half my stu­dents go into the nu­clear in­dus­try and the other half the med­i­cal field (work­ing with ra­di­a­tion of­ten in can­cer treat­ment). And then I do re­search. In my re­search I do two things: I build bio med­i­cal de­vices, and my other work is in col­lab­o­ra­tion with a col­league look­ing at low­dose ra­di­a­tion ef­fects. Some classes and re­search is in the nu­clear re­ac­tor at McMaster. (For in­stance) I did a study where I bought a whole bunch of tea. I looked very strange at the gro­cery store check­out. I came back to McMaster and brewed the tea and then (used) the re­ac­tor to work out how much flu­o­rine is in tea. We could see from re­search that peo­ple in Hamil­ton, tea drinkers, are get­ting more flu­o­ride than those who don’t. And the study con­firmed, yes, there is flu­o­rine. There is no other univer­sity in Canada where stu­dents spend time in a re­ac­tor.

Spec­ta­tor: How do we get ex­posed to ra­di­a­tion?

Fiona McNeill: Ev­ery­body gets ex­posed to ra­di­a­tion on a daily ba­sis. Some of it is just con­tained within soil. You also get cos­mic ex­po­sure be­cause we’re spin­ning through space. There is a pro­por­tion of nor­mal ex­po­sure, such as Xrays at the den­tist or an X-ray for bro­ken bones at the hos­pi­tal. If there is a con­cern you may have can­cer, ra­di­a­tion is of­ten used in di­ag­noses: mam­mo­grams, CT scans, PET scans. So, as hu­man be­ings we have been ex­posed to ra­di­a­tion all through evo­lu­tion. Your ex­po­sure varies on the planet. In­dia and Iran have a nat­u­ral back­ground of high ra­di­a­tion. At high al­ti­tudes (in­clud­ing on planes) there is less at­mos­phere to pro­tect you from cos­mic ra­di­a­tion. Fighter pi­lots can be ex­posed to more ra­di­a­tion ... As­tro­nauts are ex­posed to very high ra­di­a­tion. Peo­ple are ex­posed to ra­di­a­tion a lot even if they don’t re­al­ize it.

Spec­ta­tor: How much is too much ra­di­a­tion?

Fiona McNeill: The ques­tion “When is it too much?” is one of my ar­eas of study. We know what hap­pens very clearly when ex­posed to high lev­els. Re­searchers use data from Hiroshima and Na­gasaki. Ob­vi­ously we’re never go­ing to test ra­di­a­tion on peo­ple, so you have to use the data that’s avail­able to you. A high dose can kill you. It af­fects bone mar­row and the gas­troin­testi­nal tract. It’s a very un­pleas­ant way to die. The chal­lenge is when you look at data you have to make as­sump­tions. We’re try­ing to look at some of these low-dose ef­fects ... but there is still un­cer­tainty on the low level. Cur­rently ra­di­a­tion pro­tec­tion is prob­a­bly very con­ser­va­tive and per­haps costs more than it needs to. What we’re try­ing to do to pro­vide more data so that you can get more cer­tainty on what the true risk is. As you go down (from high dose to low dose) the ef­fects are not de­ter­min­is­tic. At a low dose it be­comes more a mat­ter of prob­a­bil­ity that some­thing may hap­pen. When look­ing at the peo­ple who sur­vived the ini­tial (Hiroshima and Na­gasaki) bomb­ing, there are higher can­cer rates, and they did see some in­creases in birth de­fects ... The gen­eral pro­tec­tion lev­els for peo­ple in Canada are set 100 times lower and man­aged even lower than that. Gen­er­ally the lev­els are set so low that when some­one gets ex­po­sure (it’s man­age­able). Peo­ple who work with ra­di­a­tion have an­nual lim­its set, so if there is a slightly el­e­vated ex­po­sure that worker would typ­i­cally be re­moved from ra­di­a­tion ex­po­sure for the rest of the year.

Spec­ta­tor: What do you hope peo­ple will take away from “RISK FAC­TOR”?

Fiona McNeill: There are two mes­sages. One is this whole per­sonal ex­plo­ration of risk, how do you make your own as­sess­ments of risk; there may be haz­ards but you can re­duce your risks with dif­fer­ent strate­gies. The other part of it is about how do you com­mu­ni­cate this? How as sci­en­tists do we try and com­mu­ni­cate. I think there is an as­pect in this cli­mate, this po­lit­i­cal cli­mate of fake news and al­ter­na­tive facts. How do peo­ple find real in­for­ma­tion? Sci­en­tists need to find new ways to com­mu­ni­cate with the pub­lic. Then ex­plain how they came to those con­clu­sions.


Fiona McNeill, di­rec­tor of ra­di­a­tion sciences at McMaster Univer­sity

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