About occupational radiation exposure

Frequently asked questions about concepts, history, etc. related to occupational radiation exposure


Who developed radiation risk estimates?

Radiation risk estimates were developed by several national and international scientific organizations over the last 40 years. These organizations include the National Academy of Sciences (which has issued several reports from the Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiations, BEIR), the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP), the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), and the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR). Each of these organizations continues to review new research findings on radiation health risks.

Several reports from these organizations present new findings on radiation risks based upon revised estimates of radiation dose to survivors of the atomic bombing at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For example, UNSCEAR published risk estimates in 1988 and 1993. The NCRP also published a report in 1988, "New Dosimetry at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Its Implications for Risk Estimates. In January 1990, the National Academy of Sciences released the fifth report of the BEIR Committee, "Health Effects of Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation" . Each of these publications also provides extensive bibliographies on other published studies concerning radiation health effects for those who may wish to read further on this subject.

What is meant by ALARA?

ALARA means "as low as is reasonably achievable." In addition to providing an upper limit on an individual's permissible radiation dose, the NRC requires that its licensees establish radiation protection programs and use procedures and, Engineering controls to achieve occupational doses, and doses to the public, as far below the limits as is reasonably achievable. "Reasonably achievable" also means "to the extent practicable." What is practicable depends on the purpose of the job, Lhe state of technology, the costs for averting doses, and the benefits. Although implementation of the ALARA principle is a required integral part of each licensee's radiation protection program, it does not mean that each radiation exposure must be kept to an absolute minimum, but rather that "reasonable" efforts must be made to avert dose. In practice, ALARA includes planning tasks involving radiation exposure so as to reduce dose to individual workers and the work group.

There are several ways to control radiation doses, e.g., limiting the time in radiation areas, maintaining distance from sources of radiation, and providing shielding of radiation sources to reduce dose. The use of engineering controls, from the design of facilities and equipment to the actual set-up and conduct of work activities, is also an important element of the ALARA concept.

An ALARA analysis should be used in determining whether the use of respiratory protection is advisable. In evaluating whether or not to use respirators, the goal should be to achieve the optimal sum of external and internal doses. For example, the use of respirators can lead to increased work time within radiation areas, which increases external dose. The advantage of using respirators to reduce internal exposure must be evaluated against the increased external exposure and related stresses caused by the use of respirators. Heat stress, reduced visibility, and reduced communication associated with the use of respirators could expose a worker to far greater risks than are associated with the internal dose avoided by use of the respirator. To the extent practical, engineering controls, such as containments and ventilation systems, should be used to reduce workplace airborne radioactive materials.

What are background radiation exposures?

The average person is constantly exposed to ionizing radiation from several sources. Our environment and even the human body contain naturally occurring radioactive materials (e.g., potassium-40) that contribute to the radiation dose that we receive. The largest source of natural background radiation exposure is terrestrial radon, a colorless, odorless, chemically inert gas, which causes about 55 percent of our average, non-occupational exposure. Cosmic radiation originating in space contributes additional exposure. The use of X-rays and radioactive materials in medicine and dentistry adds to our population exposure. As shown below in Table 3, the average person receives an annual radiation dose of about 0.36 rem (3.6 mSv). By age 20, the average person will accumulate over 7 rems (70 mSv) of dose. By age 50, the total dose is up to 18 rems (180 mSv). After 70 years of exposure this dose is up to 25 rems (250 mSv).

Table 3. Average Annual Effective Dose Equivalent to Individuals in the U.S.
Effective Dose Source Equivalent (mrems)
--Radon 200
--Other than Radon 100
--Total 300
Nuclear Fuel Cycle 0.05
Consumer Products* 9
--Diagnostic X-rays 39
--Nuclear Medicine 14
--Total 53
Total about 360 mrems/year
*Includes building material, television receivers, luminous watches, smoke detectors, etc.

How do I know how much my occupational dose (exposure) is?

If you are likely to receive more than 10 percent of the annual dose limits, the NRC requires your employer, the NRC licensee, to monitor your dose, to maintain records of your dose, and, at least on an annual basis for the types of licensees listed in 10 CFR 20.2206, "Reports of Individual Monitoring," to inform both you and the NRC of your dose. The purpose of this monitoring and reporting is so that the NRC can be sure that licensees are complying with the occupational dose limits and the ALARA principle.

External exposures are monitored by using individual monitoring devices. These devices are required to be used if it appears likely that external exposure will exceed 10 percent of the allowed annual dose, i.e., 0.5 rem (5 mSv). The most commonly used monitoring devices are film badges, thermoluminescence dosimeters (TLDs), electronic dosimeters, and direct reading pocket dosimeters.

With respect to internal exposure, your employer is required to monitor your occupational intake of radioactive material and assess the resulting dose if it appears likely that you will receive greater than 10 percent of the annual limit on intake (ALI) from intakes in 1 year. Internal exposure can be estimated by measuring the radiation emitted from the body (for example, with a "whole body counter") or by measuring the radioactive materials contained in biological samples such as urine or feces. Dose estimates can also be made if one knows how much radioactive material was in the air and the length of time during which the air was breathed.

Why do some facilities establish administrative control levels that are below the NRC limits?

There are two reasons. First, the NRC regulations state that licensees must take steps to keep exposures to radiation ALARA. Specific approval from the licensee for workers to receive doses in excess of administrative limits usually results in more critical risk-benefit analyses as each additional increment of dose is approved for a worker. Secondly, an administrative control level that is set lower than the NRC limit provides a safety margin designed to help the licensee avoid doses to workers in excess of the limit.

Why aren't medical exposures considered as part of a worker's allowed dose?

NRC rules exempt medical exposure, but equal doses of medical and occupational radiation have equal risks. Medical exposure to radiation is justified for reasons that are quite different from the reasons for occupational exposure. A physician prescribing an X-ray, for example, makes a medical judgment that the benefit to the patient from the resulting medical information justifies the risk associated with the radiation. This judgment may or may not be accepted by the patient. Similarly, each worker must decide on the benefits and acceptability of occupational radiation risk, just as each worker must decide on the acceptability of any other occupational hazard.

Consider a worker who receives a dose of 3 rems (0.03 Sv) from a series of X-rays in connection with an injury or illness. This dose and any associated risk must be justified on medical grounds. If the worker had also received 2 rems (0.02 Sv) on the job, the combined dose of 5 rems (0.05 Sv) would in no way incapacitate the worker. Restricting the worker from additional job exposure during the remainder of the year would not have any effect on the risk from the 3 rems (0.03 Sv) already received from the medical exposure. If the individual worker accepts the risks associated with the X-rays on the basis of the medical benefits and accepts the risks associated with job-related exposure on the basis of employment benefits, it would be unreasonable to restrict the worker from employment involving exposure to radiation for the remainder of the year.

How were radiation dose limits established?

The NRC radiation dose limits in 10 CFR Part 20 were established by the NRC based on the recommendations of the ICRP and NCRP as endorsed in Federal radiation protection guidance developed by the EPA (Ref. 12). The limits were recommender, the ICRP and NCRP with the objective of ensuring that working in a radiation-related industry was as safe as working in other comparable industries. The dose limits and the 4nciple of ALARA should ensure that risks to work, are maintained indistinguishable from risks from background radiation.

Several scientific reports have recommended that the NRC establish lower dose limits. Does the NRC plan to reduce the regulatory limits?

Since publication of the NRC's proposed rule in 1986, the ICRP in 1990 revised its recommendations for radiation protection based on newer studies of radiation risks , and the NCRP followed with a revision to its recommendations in 1993. The ICRP recommended a limit of 10 rems (0.1 Sv) effective dose equivalent (from internal and external sources) over a 5-year period with no more than 5 rems (0.05 Sv) in 1 year. The NCRP recommended a cumulative limit in rems, not to exceed the individual's age in years, with no more than 5 rems (0.05 Sv) in any year.

The NRC does not believe that additional reductions in the dose limits are required at this time. Because of the practice of maintaining radiation exposures ALARA (as low as is reasonably achievable), the average radiation dose to occupationally exposed per; is well below the limits in the current Part 20 that became mandatory January 1, 1994, and the average doses to radiation workers are below the new limits recommended by the ICRP and the NCRP.

Where can one get additional information on radiation risk?

The following list suggests sources of useful information on radiation risk:

  • The employer, the radiation protection or health physics office where a worker is employed
  • Nuclear Regulatory Commission Regional Offices
    • King of Prussia, Pennsylvania: (610) 337-5000
    • Atlanta, Georgia: (404) 331-4503
    • Lisle, Illinois: (708) 829-9500
    • Arlington, Texas: (817) 860-8100
  • U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Headquarters
    Radiation Protection & Health Effects Branch Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research

    Washington, DC 20555
    Phone: (301) 415-6187
  • Department of Health and Human Services
    Center for Devices and Radiological Health
    1390 Piccard Drive
    MS HFZ-1
    Rockville, MD 20850
    Phone: (301) 443-4690
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
    Office of Radiation and Indoor Air Criteria and Standards Division
    401 M St. NW. Washington, DC 20460
    Phone: (202) 233-9290


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