Can’t talk now…
I’m scanning for radiation!
Add another item to your must have list for your disaster preparedness kit — your smartphone! Nevermind making calls to loved ones while the phone systems are overloaded, you’ll be able to use yours to check for radiation.
Shortly after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant meltdown in 2011, a couple of grad students in Poland noticed strange colored dots on pictures of the plant after the accident. They hypothesized the dots were evidence of radiation caught on camera, and were able to prove it through testing. They created an app called Radiation Alarm that they now make available via Googleplay for free. Radiation Alarm software uses the existing camera hardware in your smartphone to detect radiation. It is able to show three levels: no radiation, low radiation, and radiation hazard.
Radiation Alarm is one of a number of easy to use, inexpensive smartphone radiation detectors available that provide members of the general public a moderately priced, user-friendly capability to detect radiation in their environment and on food and personal objects. The advent of smartphone radiation detectors is a game changer — it empowers average people to monitor their surroundings for radiation rather than solely rely on official information sources.
People are not able to smell, feel, or see radiation, so detection equipment is critical for life safety in environments where radioactive releases may occur or have already occurred. Exposure to ionizing radiation (alpha, beta, gamma, x-ray, or neutrons) may cause dangerous health effects including cancer from continuous lower doses to burns and potentially fatal radiation sickness due to acute high doses. No deaths or acute radiation illnesses due to the Fukushima accident have been reported. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that no appreciable increase of cancer risk will result in the general population from the Fukushima accident, in part due to the protective actions taken such as evacuation and food monitoring.
Still, it’s not surprising that many average Japanese residents living in areas peripheral to the evacuation zones wanted to have an accessible tool to detect and measure radiation, making smartphone radiation detectors very popular. Traditional, professional-grade dosimeters to measure dose absorption over time will cost upwards from $200, while personal radiation detectors, which alert the user very quickly to radiation presence and intensity start at $600.
The Polish student team actually may not have been the first to discover and exploit the ability of a camera to detect radiation. Another software developed through research first published in 2011 and funded by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense is available for sale as the app called GammaPix for $4.99. The developers say their sponsors encouraged them to make the application available widely to the public. Sensitivity is dependent on the complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) or charged coupled device (CCD) chips in the camera. GammaPix instructs users to cover the lens to block light. GammaPix is also promoting use of its software for security surveillance cameras. Scientists at the Idaho National Laboratory are also researching similar techniques, so improvements are likely to develop in the near future.
The apps that use the phone’s camera are not yet very sensitive and require the lens to be covered to work. Another option that provides more accurate radiation measurement is an adaptor or dongle you attach to the phone. A non-profit organization founded in Japan in May, 2011 named Radiation Watch distributes the Pocket Geiger, or POKEGA, an external attachment for Android or iPhone combined with a software application.
The first edition kit incorporated a ten Yen coin as a beta-particle shield and a plastic candy box provided by the user as a case. It was distributed beginning a few months after the Fukushima accident at an amazingly low retail cost of $23. The device and software application use the smartphone for calculations and measurement display and its global positioning system and internet connection for data sharing. POKEGA’s 12,000 plus users have the option to join a Facebook user group where they can see the maps generated from the user radiation data automatically uploaded to Radiation Watch servers. The developers note that this feature has developed into an independent support community for users in Japan. Radiation Watch even provides jobs in the disaster stricken area through its factory that survived the 2011 tsunami that otherwise nearly devastated Ishinomaki-city in Miyagi prefecture.
In July, 2012 the Softbank company released a new Pantone smartphone model that incorporates a radiation sensor chip inside the phone that can be activated by a button on the front of the phone. The phone sells in Japan for approximately $115.
A Russian inventor is also marketing an adaptor housing a silicon sensor that retails for approximately $150 and can be used with iPhones and Androids. The DO-RA website claims its adaptors are nearly as sensitive as traditional Geiger-Mueller counters. The DO-RA can operate in dosimeter mode, displaying cumulative doses from onset of use, in measurement mode, measuring the dose over a specified time, and in radiometer mode, measuring background radiation. For Apple consumers consumed with sleek design, one of the models is shaped like a tasty apple.
The widespread accessibility of this technology does raise issues, such as whether people will make important health decisions based on potentially inaccurate information from such devices that lack the sensitivity of professional radiation detection equipment. Another concern is how the availability and widespread use of personal detectors of varying quality being used for crowd-sourced mapping and posting on the internet may confuse people about the validity of official governmental radiation monitoring.
In the U.S., the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency routinely collects and posts radiation monitoring data from 100 fixed sites and 40 portable detectors on its website. This program, called RadNet, seeks to establish a background radiation baseline for reference and is an effort to demonstrate transparency to the public related to radiation hazards. EPA has used the site to provide information about Fukushima related radiation effects in the U.S. If a radiation disaster were to occur inside the U.S., this site would be already established as an official government source for environmental radiation monitoring data.
Regardless, there is no doubt that if a nuclear or radiological disaster were to occur in the U.S., we can expect similar reactions to those of citizens in Japan regarding the desire for personal radiation monitoring devices. The important thing for homeland security planners and policymakers to consider is that widespread use and posting of personal radiation detector measurements will be the norm after any radiation emergency. They must plan to work with this information when providing safety messages and radiation risk information to the public.
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