When experimenting with ionizing radiation, like X-rays or Gamma-rays, diminishing your and everyone else’s exposure should be the first priority. Ionizing radiation can have serious health effects at high biologically effective doses including skin burns, an increase in cancers, radiation sickness, and even death.
There are three components that figure into the total radiation dose: time, distance, and shielding.
- Time: The less time you spend exposed to radiation the lower your dose. When experimenting, make sure you know exactly what you need to get done with the radiation. If necessary, go through a dry run practicing all your motions without the radiation. Only use the radiation when you have worked out all the other potential problems with your experimental procedure.
- Distance: Like most other physical phenomena, radiation decreases with distance in accordance with the inverse square law. This means that the further away you are from the source of the radiation, the less radiation you’ll be exposed to. Try to plan your experiments so that you, and anyone else around, are standing as far away from the radiation source as possible.
- Shielding: As ionizing radiation passes through matter, the intensity of the radiation is diminished. Thus, to protect yourself from radiation you should erect a barrier or shield. However, the material you use matters significantly; some materials reduce the intensity of radiation more than others. Every material has a “halving thickness.” This is the thickness required to reduce the radiation intensity by half. So if the halving thickness of a material is 1 inch, then a 1 inch thick sheet will cut the radiation to 50%. Two inches will cut the radiation to 25%, 3 inches to 12.5%, and so forth. Traditionally lead is used for shielding because it has a very low halving thickness (0.4 inches). Before working with radiation, erect the shielding. When working with radiation, staying behind the shielding can be an effective way of diminishing your radiation exposure.
Many scientists involved with lasers agree on the following guidelines:
- Everyone who uses a laser should be aware of the risks. This awareness is not just a matter of time spent with lasers; to the contrary, long-term dealing with invisible risks (such as from infrared laser beams) tends to reduce risk awareness primarily due to complacency, rather than to sharpen it.
- Optical experiments should be carried out on an optical table with all laser beams travelling in the horizontal plane only, and all beams should be stopped at the edges of the table. Users should never put their eyes at the level of the horizontal plane where the beams are in case of reflected beams that leave the table.
- Watches and other jewelry that might enter the optical plane should not be allowed in the laboratory. All non-optical objects that are close to the optical plane should have a matte finish in order to prevent specular reflections.
- Adequate eye protection should always be required for everyone in the room if there is a significant risk for eye injury.
- High-intensity beams that can cause fire or skin damage (mainly from class 4 and ultraviolet lasers) and that are not frequently modified should be guided through opaque tubes.
- Alignment of beams and optical components should be performed at a reduced beam power whenever possible.
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