A good place to start is that counting labs rarely (read: I have never seen one) end up on the top floor with beautiful views of your surroundings. No, you get the dungeon labs where sunlight & windows are a rumor, but the radon down there is quite real.

[The eleventh in an ongoing series of my compiled explainers for my CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE quizzes. There’s never really a right answer but some might work out better under the constraints of the scenario. It’s like poetry, really.]

How much radon you have in your subterranean science lair is very much a function of where you are and what your local geology is like. But even in the newest, most freshly heaved from ocean sedimentary formations you’re going to have some. GOOD NEWS! Your building HVAC takes care of this. Well, it should take care of it. If the HVAC is balanced to actually move air through your room. Have you made friends with the Facilities folks yet? You should really do that. 

If you live around some really nice old cracked granite, you’ll have extra fans to blow it clear. In a fine parsing of the language of the scenario and the explainer tweets so far, you’ll notice I just said “radon”. I didn’t give you any specific radionuclides, like Rn-222. This is because for naturally occurring radon, you get all of the them, all the time. But with a half-life of just shy of 4 days, Rn-222 is the only one that really gets a chance to accumulate. The next longest lived is measured in hours. But they’re all there. But assuming your HVAC is working properly, this isn’t a issue. You know the radon evolution rate in your area and you ventilate appropriately. In most places, the typical air changes to blow your human stink out of the building is sufficient. In Wisconsin, you might want extra. 

Also, we don’t *really* detect radon. Radon is an annoying noble gas which means it doesn’t stick to anything, so it’s hard to get enough in any one place to detect. But it’s decay products when it spontaneously stops being radon? Oh yeah, we can work with those.

NOTE: for anyone about to share radon immersion dose stories and calculations, please smugly keep your edge case to yourself.

But what your instrumentation is telling you is that you are experiencing events where you are getting WAY more radon than normal and that’s weird. The question is from where. The game “What the hell is this signal?” is the unofficial hobby of all counting labs. Because you put your sample in the counter, you know what you expect to see and then when you a huge signal of something extra, well, that’s like a big wet fart from the man in front of you playing his Brown Note Solo during the quietest part of a symphony. In the CYORA: Surprise Positrons, an inconsiderate researcher managed to throw off pretty much every counting experiment in the entire building with their insufficiently shielded Na-22 source. Hooboy, those other researchers were hunting for that source.

Counting labs having anomalous signals, even if they’re far away, are how we’ve detected pretty much every incident that has happened in the Soviet Union and its successor states when they don’t feel particularly forthcoming at the time of the incident. If a reactor does the bad burp, you WILL notice it downwind. If it’s particularly bad, that signal will make its way all the way around the planet to show up on your detector from the other direction. Labs in Minsk detected Chernobyl before Sweden did but eventually everyone could.  But what reactor leaks don’t look like is radon. Depending on the particularly kind of leak, you’re going to have fission product signals that show up in your counts. As there’s only so many ways you can get those, you should probably call someone about that. 
If someone was rude enough to set up a SURPRISE ACCELERATOR next to your counting lab without so much as an Employee Right-To-Know chat over coffee, they’re probably using the other side of the wall from your detector as their backstop to be Maximally Inconsiderate Colleague. But again, an accelerator, even one operating in a mode/power that can cause activation, isn’t going to give you a radon signal. It’ll give you a big honking Bremsstrahlung curve to absolutely wipe out your detector, but not radon. Seriously, SURPRISE ACCELERATORS are rude, but they aren’t subtle. You tend to notice when one shows up before they turn it on and can have very productive discussions about shared spaces, resources, and institutional research priorities. It’s also a super great time to make new enemies for the rest of your respective careers.
Which means you’re now looking for the things that are subtle. Changes that might have happened that you can’t see. Perhaps changes that happened to the built environment that no one would think are an issue. Changes like someone getting a fancy new smaller counterweight for the elevator. Elevator counterweights come in a lot of flavors, but the key is that your space is limited in the shaft. Concrete is cheap, but very bulky. Junk steel? It’ll work. Lead? Now we’re talking to get the size down of the counterweight down and you already have a CA Prop 65 warning on the building anyway. Tungsten? You are superfancy and must have a lot of budget to burn because that’s expensive. How about a depleted uranium one?

Oh dear. 

As several of you identified, an elevator shaft is a lovely low space where you could collect radon but the pumping action of the elevator tends to flush it out regularly. Admittedly, your flushing it into the rest of the building but that’s what your HVAC is for. Having a DU counterweight means there’s a chance to evolve a teensy extra bit of radon in the elevator shaft from the decay of the U-238 as it heads toward equilibrium with its daughters. Mind you, hitting equilibrium is gonna take about a million years so it’s a teensy amount of radon. There are, however, several amusing gammas coming off the 2000kg+ slab of DU regularly going up and down the shaft. If your counting lab is near the elevator, you’re going to see it every damn time it goes by, but it’s not radon.
To get a radon spike large enough to effect your instruments you are going need, technically speaking, a shit ton of radon, far more than your build HVAC can handle. Where the heck are you gonna to get that? Why, the Earth of course!  But how to get it? Radon is constantly evolving out of the soil but must of it decays away before it ever gets a chance hit the surface. The rate of radon evolution is not only a function of the soil composition but also of weather. Depending on the barometric pressure, radon gets tamped down into the soil during highs and when it’s low, like a thunderstorm or blizzard, that lid comes off.

For very sensitive counting labs, watch the weather closely. 

For the events that inspire the scenario, there was a counting experiment that was getting pronounced Ra-226 lines showing up in their overnight runs at least once a month over the course of a year. There was no rhyme or reason other than “only overnight runs”. I was asked to help find the source of this mysterious source because one researcher had had their experiments ruined three times in a row and it was driving them crazy.

Keeping in mind what they told me, I started by looking at the experimental setup. Experiment looked solid and I found no signs of stray contamination leftover from previous experiments. All sources were accounted for and secure when I performed an inventory. I took a step back, sort of cleared my mind, and took in the whole space. That’s when I figured it out and moved one item. The random radium peaks vanished. 

They were very thankful. Then, six months later, it happened again. I got an angry phone call saying the peaks were back and I hadn’t fixed it after all. 

Me: Did you move your trashcan next to your experiment again?
Them: Uhh [clearly looking to check], yes. What’s that got to do with anything?
Me: As long as it was by the door, the janitor with a SPICY radium watch didn’t have to walk into your lab and near your incredibly sensitive experiment to empty the trashcan.
Me: Why didn’t you leave your trashcans out in the hallway like they were supposed to be in the first place. The janitor was doing you a favor by even entering your space to collect up your trash.

MORAL: Don’t blame the janitor for your fuck up.



When you’re regarded as a teacher/professor’s favorite student over their entire career, it makes it very likely the school administration or alumni association will drop you a line for help, no matter what you went on to do in life.

This may encourage you to move far from home.

[The tenth in an ongoing series of my compiled explainers for my CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE quizzes. There’s never really a right answer but some might work out better under the constraints of the scenario. It’s like poetry, really.]

If you have memories, happy or otherwise, of your teachers having a seemingly endless supply of weird and concerning apparatus for demonstrations, I want to assure you there were SO MANY MORE they didn’t use in the backroom and back at their homes. The things your teacher’d bring out for demos are a function of a few things:
  • Where/how old is your school district?
  • How comfortable are they are using it?
  • How likely is it to break/easy to fix again?
  • Have they been specifically forbidden to use it by administration? 

The collection your teacher has to draw on is made up of the collective things ALL the science teachers that have ever taught there have left behind, everything of their own, and everything donated to the district over the decades. Because if you can give it away, and they accept it, it isn’t waste and you get a tax write off for the donation. You know, for kids! SEE ALSO: Navy base cleanup CYORA 

Sooooo, if you live near a military base, university, or national lab interesting things may sneak into your local high schools. Especially if your former teacher used to work at any of these institutions. They knew exactly what to grab from the surplus sales. 

It’s entirely likely the four items in this quiz are in the demo collection. For example, Luis Alvarez, his students, and Oppenheimer’s sons used to build cloud chambers and hand them out to anyone and everyone that wanted one within a several hundred mile radius of Berkeley, CA. What they didn’t typically give were radioactive sources to go with the cloud chamber. Not because the rules were strict or that the Nobel Prize winner was stingy but rather because a suitable radioactive source was very easy to lay hands on for most anyone those days. If it isn’t already mounted in the cloud chamber, there’s likely a box somewhere near it with a Ra-226 tipped needle or a small piece of pitchblende. Of course, this might be when you find the cabinet with a century worth of collected rad sources, but that’s a different CYORA. Old enough radium needles and crumbly ore will shed material, which is annoying and you have to clean up, but they aren’t a big dose concern. Use your GM to find all the bits and bag them all nicely.

But even in this blighted Year of Nergal 2020, your cloud chamber and the associated bits are probably the newest of the four at ~80 years old. Sears-Roebuck, however, made ABSOLUTE BANK selling medical quackery, pretty much from the first 1894 catalog. I’m not going to link to any of the modern inheritors of the 19th century hair growth stimulation wands, but suffice it to say this product class has never really gone away. Various specific products have been pulled from the market over the decades and dozens of new ones take their place. In summation, yes, I know all about the damn laser hats and have reported several to the FDA. Speaking of the FDA, as many of you noted, the peak of electricity based quack devices matches nicely with the rise of the radiation-based ones. And this all predates the Clean Food & Drug Act. 


There were absolutely manufacturers who reasoned MORE VOLTAGE, MORE RADON, MORE FUN, SIX FLAGS!!! and then they did the Mr. Six dance all the way to the bank. But the wand is more of an electrocution hazard than a radiological one with it’s fraying fabric insulation. The uranium or thorium in the glass of the wand’s discharge tip will glow nicely thanks to the discharge, but the dose rates won’t be much worse than depression glass.

Speaking of electrical fun, this brings us to the Van de Graff generator. A 450kV Van de Graff is about this size and works roughly like so for fun demos.

450kV will do good zaps, raise hair, and stick balloons everywhere. And while you can use a Van de Graff’s as an accelerator, you need to hit about 10MeV before I’m worried about you activating things with electrons. This one’s safe and will make the Halloween party look good. 
Which brings us to the hand-blown Crookes Tube. Hand-blown isn’t particularly concerning as that’s just how most of them were made, especially if you want something inside the tube as a target like a Maltese Cross or phosphor strip. If you aren’t familiar with this bit of apparatus, they look like this. I’m posting this video with a wince and going to have a nice sip of my cocktail. 

A Crooke’s Tube is more generically known as a cathode ray tube (CRT). CRT covers everything from this 19th century delight, to your old tube TV, to your x-ray unit. What they all have in common are electrodes, glass, vacuum, voltage…and the generation of x-rays. Did you notice the sound in that nine second video? That was their rad meter out of the shot reacting to all the x-rays emitted when voltage was applied to the tube. Very old tubes still function, though you may need to bake them out a bit before they’ll work well enough to give you a good glow. But why didn’t you ever hear about x-rays from your old TV’s CRT? Ever notice how heavy those damn things were compared to your flatscreen? Because we learned lessons quickly and added a bunch of lead to the tubes of consumer products. We also made the FDA’s responsible for them after one holiday shopping season production whoopsie.

The Crooke’s Tubes have none of that. Their soft x-ray emission *and how it aims* is a function of applied voltage, target material, how good the vacuum is, and what magnets you add. Some are highly directional. Others spew x-rays EVERYWHERE. Get your meter for this one. And I use the plural “tubes” because no self-respecting teacher has just one, unless that’s the only one left intact after a century of instruction. For public instruction, you want the dose rate <2µSv/hr. You might discover you need to move some desks to use them. 

For the inspiring events for this scenario, while my high school physics/chemistry teacher had all the things listed in the quiz and so much more (especially the Sears medical quackery instruments), P.Q. le Boom’s Collection is not the subject in question here. 

A physics demo group had a remarkable collection of hand-blown Crooke’s Tubes, dozens in all kinds of configurations, with the newest having been made by Zeiss in 1923. The oldest had been made in-house by the demo group’s predecessors over a century earlier. They’d been in continuous use for ~100yrs for classroom demonstration for professors. Nor had the demos changed much in a century. Then SOME COMPLETE BASTARD asked if anyone had ever done a dose rate measurement of them in operation as set up by professors for instruction. And so, one by one, each of the configurations got set up in every single one of the classrooms to assess the setup, tubes, and teaching space.

PROTIP: Do not aim your tube at students. That’s rude. Use a camera if you want them to see the Maltese Cross shadow. 

At a basic level, they needed to determine if there were any dose rates in excess .2µSv/hr in the classroom.

ANSWER: Each and every one of the tubes was in excess of that for the professor at the front of the classroom. But that’s fine, they’re rad workers.

With the worst of the tubes, even in the largest auditorium, you’d have had to evacuate the first six rows. In the smaller class rooms, you wouldn’t have been able to let any students remain physically present at all. Of the dozens of tubes, it was whittled down to five acceptable ones and only allowed to be used in certain spaces. If there’s a positive aspect to remote instruction in the COVID-19 era, you won’t be in the front row of class, looking down the bore of a 120 year old Crooke’s Tube.


The Decembering 2020: Holidays in the Time of COVID-19

First of all, I want to thank everyone that contributed, watched, and bullshitted with us for the Team Sensible Shoes Extra Life campaign, playing Shadows of Brimstone for almost 26 hours spread over two days. It was fun, still challenging to our increasingly old bodies, and we raised almost $2000 for kids. Again, thank you!

Moving on to business, as the BBotE pre-order slots for the window ending November 21st are up that means we’re sneaking up on Thanksgiving and thus it’s time to give my PROTIPS for holiday shopping! To the people that are very proactive and organized in their holiday shopping, such as the gentleman that I let place a reserve order in September for shipment on December 10th, I’ll answer your question now: yes, you can place an order now in an earlier production window for a holiday shipment. Please leave a note saying “Delay shipment until $DESIRED_DATE” with your order so I know you want it later rather than ASAP.

It was only -38F that day. It's a dry cold.

My Ceremonial South Pole Hero Shot & Xmas Card 2002. I still love that shirt.

The last pre-Xmas BBotE production window will close on December 19th. All things being equal, domestic or international, everything shipped by the 17th should end up at their destination by Christmas Eve. I can’t control weather, volcanic eruptions, asteroid strikes, or complete collapse of the world postal system due to pandemic and neglect, but a week and change is usually quite sufficient to get everything to its destination, even international. I will put another pre-order window up and crank as much out as humanly possible after the 17th. Domestic shipping on Monday December 21st has a chance to get there by the 24th, but I make absolutely no guarantees about shipments in that window arriving in time. Express mail gets more and more necessary in the last days. I’ll do my best, but that’s all I can do.

Worse come to worse, gift certificates are always an option. 

To reiterate shopping advice from the previous years, here’s a few things you should probably think about if you decide to place an order for a holiday gift from Funranium Labs:

  1. Steins of Science Availability is Limited: I am maintaining some inventory, but not many. If you really, really want one and the one you want is not available, contact me sooner rather than later so I can do my best to get one for you ASAP. However, with COVID considerations resupply is tricky. I likely will not be getting another shipment between now and the end of the year.
  2. BBotE Is Perishable: When refrigerated, it has a shelf-life of about three months (possibly longer, but I’m only going to quote three).  If you’re going to wrap it up and put it under the tree, this a present to put out on Christmas Eve and the promptly put back in the fridge after unwrapping. Alternatively, embrace the idea of the holiday season and decide to give it to the recipient immediately, for all days are special. For shipments going directly to people as gifts, I stick a consumption guide in the box, with a note of who ordered it for them, and stamp the box “REFRIGERATE ON RECEIPT”.
  3. Let People Know BBotE Is Coming: I know part of the joy in presents is the surprise of what you get. However, joy is not the emotion most people feel when a bottle of mysterious black liquid shows up on their doorstep, especially if it’s been sitting there for a week outside because they were out of town. Give them a heads up, that something’s coming they’ll want to stick in the fridge. I will also tuck handling instructions in the box for a gift and a note stating who sent it.
  4. The pre-order slot dates date are “Ship No Later Than”, not “Ships After”: I get your orders out as soon as I can, but even in the furthest flung corner of the US with the slowest mail carrier, this means you should have your order in hand by December 16th for that last order slots. If you want to order something NOW to ship later, effectively reserving a spot in a later order queue, you can do so but please leave a note with your order telling me when you want it to ship by.
  5. International Shipments Go Out Express Mail: Because I don’t want BBotE to get stuck in postal facilities or customs, express is the only way to ship to minimize their time in bureaucratic hell. Expect it to take 3-5 business days to get to you, so time your orders accordingly to make sure things get to you in time. FAIR WARNING, the international postal system, even for express, has been a little squirrelly this year due to the reduced flights because of COVID-19 so you might want to order a little earlier if overseas.
  6. APO/FPO: If you wish to send something out to someone with an Armed Forces address, there’s good news and bad news. Good news – it’s no more expensive than priority mail. Bad news – I can’t guarantee any date as to when things will arrive and this has gotten worse in the COVID  times (see #5). Outside of active war zones, things move somewhat normally; inside war zones and on ships at sea, things get iffy. Also, depending on routing, some nations (I’m looking at you, Turkey) have bounced BBotE back to me on the basis that it is, and I quote, Morally Questionable Material. Amazingly, my shipments to Korea and Okinawa seem to arrive faster than they do to other places on the west coast of the US mainland. Go figure. In short, I’ll do my best but you’ve been warned.
  7. Local Pick Up: Resupply shipments will go out to all the BBotE Ambassadors as fast as I can crank them out, so be sure to drop them a line if grabbing a bottle that way is more convenient for you. A message to them will help them decide what to fill their cases with. I’m sure they’d like clean and empty refrigerators as their Christmas present.
  8. Turkey, Italy & Brazil: It breaks my heart to say this, I can’t ship to these countries. Italy, I absolutely do not trust your postal system. The level of theft shipping things anywhere south of Rome is, frankly, appalling. If you ask me to ship to Naples, I make absolutely zero guarantee of it arriving. Brazil, your customs causes shipments to languish for so long that the BBotE goes off before it arrives, even if shipped express; steins seem to be fine though. Turkey, well, I discussed that problem in #6.
  9. BBotE Production Is First Come, First Served: My maximum daily production output is 12L per day. Thus, people who request 12pk cases will lock up production for an entire day.
  10. BBotE Has No Kosher Or Halal Certification: While Robert Anton Wilson did confer the papacy upon me, and all the other people in the Porter College Dining Hall at UCSC in 1996, this does not permit me to sanctify food. I do have a helpful Dominican priest in Portland who’d probably be willing to bless your BBotE for you, but that’s still not helpful for most people. Sorry. 

For those of you who read this far, I congratulate you.


Mooching off of other departments is always a challenge, if for no other reason than they’re gonna mooch right back at you later.

Of course, the things they’re most willing to give you is their garbage. As the saying goes, “It’s not waste if someone else has a use for it.”

[The ninth in an ongoing series of my compiled explainers for my CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE quizzes. There’s never really a right answer but some might work out better under the constraints of the scenario. It’s like poetry, really.]

PROTIP: try not to become someone else’s rad/hazardous waste disposal site because you thought you might be able to eke out some use of someone else’s garbage. Especially if it comes with extra bonus hazards beyond the thing you want it for. For a low background, when also low on cash, you’re looking for things that:
  • Are dense enough to block things from outside your counting experiment
  • You can actually afford/find/work with (sorry tungsten)
  • Do not contain too much rad signal of their own to mess things up 
This is why you probably don’t want to go raid Mechanical Engineering’s machine shop for their stainless steel stash. Odds on favor, everything was made post-1945 which means all that steel is going to have an atmospheric atomic testing signature to it. Also, for a while, one of the approaches to disposing of activated (radioactive) metal was the old “dilution is the solution” approach by recycling it into the smelters. The result was steel that is ever-so-slightly more radioactive than it should be. And that describes pretty much all steel, everywhere, in the world. Because so much metal recycling happens all the time as part of the smelting process, the smelters are also all ever-so-slightly more radioactive than they should be. Enough to notice, especially in a counting experiment.

Getting “quiet” steel is not easy. For a while, there was deep lust in the research community for normalization of relations with Cuba so they could get their hands on all that pre-WWII steel preserved in the old American behemoth cars there. Also WWI & II shipwrecks. The steel you might steal from MechE would be fine for building the outermost layer of your counting experiment, but the Co, Fe, Ni, and V lines (depending on the type of steel) are going to drive you nuts. Also, it’s just not dense enough to shut out enough of the outside world.

A few of you suggested “Why not just use a lot of water?” That is actually an excellent solution, except that we’re talking A LOT of a water. [imagines cooperative lab space inside @MontereyAq‘s Outer Bay tank] Also remember, this is poverty constrained. Building an underwater lab is, well, kind of anomalously wealthy criminal mastermind territory. We can do hydrogenous shielding to block out neutrons with a “brick” of water, which I would normally describe as a fish tank picked up at the thrift store for $2. But that’s not gonna help here. You want gammas and cosmic rays gone and can’t afford a Science Submarine. 

But there is that giant bin of scrap copper…

If there’s away to get the cops called on you as fast than stealing things from a museum collection, it’s trying to grab that. Most institutions jealously guard their scrap copper because it has more value. Also, that bin may not belong to the institution but rather a contractor they hired where “scrap metal reclamation” was part of their contract and is considered part of the compensation. If you mess with someone’s livelihood, they’re gonna come for you, maybe with a hammer. But if you can get it AND you have the tools to make some fresh copper bricks/plates, you’re in business. Well, other than problem that scrap copper is rarely pure copper. You just smelted an alloy and that’s has the same issues as the steel, but not as badly. So, it’ll work, but you need quite a bit of copper to block everything from the outside world. Enough that you’re gonna want a security system to deter other thieves.

Anyway, as long as were thinking about theft, how about that museum? 

When looking for lead to use in shielding, just like all the rest, we want quiet, pre-WWII lead. Because some naturally occurring isotopes of lead are radioactive, the older the better. And when looking for old things, you can’t beat a museum. Unfortunately for you, the things in museums get these fancy labels like “specimen”, “collection”, “cultural heritage item” or “National Treasure On Loan From The Ministry Of Antiquities”. So, they probably aren’t going to let you melt those down to cast new brick with old lead. But sometimes, SOMETIMES, they may be willing to work with you. For example, if the museum itself is quite old and they saved the previous lead roof to show how the museum used to be built but they don’t need all of it. In fact, you’d be doing them a favor to help make room if you took some of the excess roof sheeting off their hands. In this example, you will want to clean that lead first because it was a roof and thus has a small signal of atmospheric testing thanks to fallout. You won’t get it all, but you can make it quieter. Smelt cleanly, don’t accidentally add anything new in and you’re in good shape! 

But maybe there’s nothing available or the Anthropology department won’t play ball with you. With a heavy heart, you go to the place you know has plenty of lead bricks: Chemistry. They don’t use them quite as much any more, so they’re fairly happy to share with you. Chemistry bricks have been loved. Good news is that most of them are pretty old. Might not pre-date the Manhattan Project, but old. Unfortunately they’re also battered, gouged, and oxidized from having been constantly used in different setups for decades. Building your counting cave was probably gonna get you in the lead worker monitoring program anyway, but you definitely will be after handling these manky bricks.

And while they might be fallout and smelter recycling clean, they have been in the presence of Chemistry. They aren’t CLEAN clean. Chemistry is messy. When you get one of these bricks, you hope against hope that the white crusty stuff on them is just lead oxide. The reason chemistry has so many lead bricks is because they’d been doing radiochemistry. So, get the meter and start surveying them for rad contamination. Good news here is that lead is soft. If you find fixed contamination you can’t just wipe off, you can gouge it out to make a much smaller bit of contaminated lead waste to rid off and keep most the brick. Or, maybe, you can give this brick back to them and ask nicely for a less crapped up one. It’s worth a try.

In the events that inspire this scenario, a researcher was indeed building a counting cave and actually needed steel, lead and copper (because Cu is good at blocking the Bremsstrahlung made in the Pb when it does it’s shielding thang) to make it structurally sound and quiet. 

Researcher was rich in available labor pool, resourcefulness, and skills but with a budget that had been entirely blown on the ABSOLUTE BEAST of a detector, leaving roughly $3.50 to build the experiment itself. Ever watch Junkyard Wars? They treated the entire campus this way. The copper was eventually identified as stripped from a now defunct experiment that needed a full room Faraday Cage. The steel was heavy plate stock of a particularly nice alloy which they slipped into framing so they didn’t have to drill any holes. This way it wouldn’t be noticed when they slipped the plates back into the machine shop storage area that they had purloined them from, but with every intention of returning.

For lead, yeah, they had to go with Chemistry lead. Which is where it all went wrong.

Some of the bricks they got didn’t just predate the Manhattan Project; they’d been used as part of the Manhattan Project. Not so long ago, the approach to lead use was along the lines of “Grab some old beat up bricks from the pile, go down to the shop and cast some new ones. Or don’t you know how to do that, scrub?” Or even better, why settle for bricks when you cast the exact shapes you want in lead. Which means there was active recycling of lead throughout the Manhattan Project, by the researchers, while they were working on it. And, as I said, chemistry is messy. 

Now decades later, the researcher’s group surveyed the free Chemistry bricks. They tried to gouge out hot spots. Then they got a plane from the carpentry shop to try to shave the bricks when it seemed like the entire surface was contaminated. This didn’t work because it was bulk contamination of ENTIRE brick.

And so, in trying to work cheap with enthusiasm and creativeness, they managed to make a simultaneous lead and radiological contamination incident. As you might guess, that cost a lot more to clean up than $3.50. Even more than the detector itself.


Extra Life 2020 Update: Now with more info!

In a mere 12 hours the good times will begin! Extra Life has become the closing ceremony for the Birthdaytide Fortnight in the last couple of years and at 9am PST on the 7th we will begin the marathon of our favorite board game, Shadows of Brimstone. Your dramatis personae for this  2020 round of Cowboys & Cthulhus:

@blarkytopia – Miss Prudence Crenshaw, the Homestead Defender Rancher
@droftea – Sister Mary Shotgun of the Angels, the Redemptionist Nun
@funranium – Kenny Kaboom, the Explosive Expert Bandido
Test Subject THE WORLD – Name TBD, the Strong Leader Lawmanperson

Yesterday, we tested and validated that our long distance Brimstone gaming setup cooperates with Twitch so that we can broadcast for your viewing pleasure and the chat will be running. While there’s nothing to see there right now, the stream will go live at 9am Saturday. I expect festivities to continue until about midnight and then resume at 9am on Sunday. Unlike previous years, there will be two computers for chat monitoring to answer questions with the usual Twitch time lags. We love this game so we’re happy to answer questions about it. Also, as a safety professional, I am totally ready to discuss “darkstone radiation” might work. Bedazzling and puffy paint on your lead pig won’t help it stop gamma emissions in the real world, but somehow it works for darkstone. Go figure.

So, without further ado, go hit my Extra Life page or the TEAM SENSIBLE SHOES page to donate. Any amount helps, it’s all tax deductible, and it’s for the kids!

Here, have a cat picture for good measure.

Omaha, sitting on her favorite coffee sack, with her usual panic face, scanning the sky for eagles.


Medical Emergency vs. Rad is the natural follow up to Fire vs. Rad because the responder priorities are exactly the same: Life, Property, and Environment. Though in some jurisdictions they swap the order of those last two.

Life saving efforts are always top priority though.

Which is why it is such a dick move at the level of war crime to drop/set off a second bomb 10-20min after the first to make sure you nail all the responders doing life saving efforts. But I digress. 

In general, during contamination incidents that also have injuries we do our best to simultaneously decon and render medical attention as close to the site of the incident as safely possible, with priority on treating the injury. This comes back to what I yelled at my firefighters about in the previous CYORA linked in the header. The latency for most radiological issues, other than certain leukemias, is ~40 years. The latency for arterial bleeding is minutes at most. The reason medical issues get priority is that you don’t have much time to work with. You don’t have long to save the malfunctioning meat colony hanging on a bone reef. But, man, we can spend 80+ years decontaminating spaces, equipment, dirt and water. You know, when we remember to care about it and allocate money for the effort. We have all the time in the world for inanimate objects & environment! 

But the Responder’s First Rule always applies: don’t become a victim yourself. If there is a chance for serious radiation exposure or material uptake by the responders, this matters and this is also why you have health physicists to tell you how long you can be in there. Acute external radiation exposure tends to not be an issue in these cases, but then there’s situations like the criticality accidents. Victims are most certainly dead if you don’t get them out immediately. The traditional advice of NEVER MOVE INJURED PEOPLE no longer applies. 

First responders do have dose thresholds where we can ask them to do their jobs with higher than normal exposures, but we don’t ask them to jump into the heart of a reactor. No “biological robots” here. In the US, we have the following limits:

  • .05Sv normal annual dose limit
  • .1Sv work to save property
  • .25Sv for life-saving/disaster mitigation 
If things are really bad, you can ask for volunteers to exceed .25Sv but you can’t force them to go in. You reserve this for absolutely critical life saving efforts or things like “Someone needs to go in to flip the switch to stop the pump fueling the crit accident.” All your responders have PPE, even more monitoring than normal, etc. to minimize their uptake of material and make sure they don’t overexpose themselves. It’s very rude to treat your responders as disposable. Also, you spent a lot of money training them. They’re valuable. And while it’s not fun to think about, health physicists also get to do the math to tell first responders NOT to go in. We accept responder dose for life saving purposes; we do not take unnecessary dose for corpse retrieval. 

But in this scenario you have a living (for the moment), contaminated accident victim riddled with glass. The scenario asked you which choice would “best minimize the spread of contamination & help save the patient.” Because while life saving is a priority, we aren’t dumb. The less we have to move the victim, the less likely we are to injure them further AND the less likely we are to spread contamination. Potential contamination does matter, so someone responding to this accident also needs to be taking note of who has gone where. Probably several someones. Why does it matter? Because those are areas you’re going to have to go back and decon later after the medical part of the response is over. You have more time but man oh man is it easier when you have some notes about where to look. 

Ideally, you’d bring your medical responders to a safe area near the the accident to minimize the movement of the patient and spread of contamination. Particularly large facilities, or ones with some “high consequence” materials and operations, often have medical staff on site. But that’s not going to let your doctor do much more than some advanced first aid. Enough to stabilize the victim to get them to the hospital. Perhaps to work with the rad safety people to get the nastier of the contamination off before transport. What you aren’t going to get do in most cases is full decon before transport. If you can get their clothes off, which is where most of the contamination is, that’s super. Go for it. But the clock is ticking and time is blood. Decon showers and such probably aren’t happening. 

The nice/horrible thing about the shards is that they constitute an internal uptake of radioactive material by injection. Your victim is politely containing that material in themselves and not spreading it as contamination for the time being. But since shards though clothes into the victim are gonna make the clothes hard to remove, you gently put them in Tyvek suit and load them off for transport to hopefully contaminate the ambulance as little as possible.

But if time is of the essence, you transport without delay. This is where you probably lose an ambulance for a while afterward. They’ve got impermeable surfaces and are meant to be cleaned because they transport malfunctioning meat colonies that may be very messy indeed. But, wow, there are so many nooks and crannies in those things. There is a point where you throw your hands up and write it off because the time & cost of labor to decon exceeds the cost of the ambulance itself. If you’re gonna be throwing an ambulance away, chose an old one. But sometimes you NEED that ambulance. During a mass casualty incident, contaminated victims can seriously wipe out your transport capability when you need it most. Plastic down that you replace every run, a quick meter survey for anything serious, and then you’re off again. 

Which brings us to the hospital itself. In a perfect world, you’ve already got arrangements with the hospital for how to deal with contaminated patients, they’re trained for it, and you’ve all run drills together to make sure everyone knows what to do.

[waits patiently for the laughter to die down] 

Hospitals do not appreciate SURPRISE CONTAMINATION INCIDENTS. Everything I said about ambulance decon applies to operating rooms too, though they’re more precious and difficult to clean. Before transport, you should call ahead to let them know what’s coming so they can prepare. They will open different doors, slap plastic up, whatever they can do to make a controlled, easily decontaminated corridor to an operating room with the least possible disruption to the rest of hospital operations. And, if they can, they will do this in the parking lot as triage. Might not be as sterile as an operating room, but any equipment & supplies they need for the triage tent are conveniently right in the hospital. Rad safety people from the worksite tend to come with the victim and they’ll get handed all the contaminated shards. Hospital doesn’t want ’em. 

Once the victim is no longer in danger of dying of their injuries, now begins the complicated work of trying to determine what their material uptake was. This going to involve pretty much every orifice, including bonus ones like wounds, and everything a human body can excrete. If the preliminary sampling and math for the internal dosimetry doesn’t look promising, it’s good you’re already at the hospital because it may be time to start chelation therapy.
PROTIP: You don’t do chelation without medical supervision. It’s a really nasty way to die. 


In the inspiring event for this scenario, the victim wasn’t working with a hot cell, though that certainly has happened in the past, but rather in a glovebox where the exhaust fan had a rather severe hiccup and causing the window to shatter. On a positive note, this means the victim didn’t get a face and torso full of shards but arms and hands instead. Through the gloves. Considering the actinides this glovebox was normally used for, that’s bad. It worth noting that the glovebox window going away immediately caused all the continuous air monitoring systems to go off, getting emergency responders headed that way immediately. Odds of a materials uptake by victim = VERY YES

GOOD NEWS: The gloves were thick enough that they caught most of the shards with only a few penetrating deeply.

BAD NEWS: The now exposed gloves were *very contaminated* from handling materials over the years and need to be kept from crapping everything up. 

And so, the victim got out of the glovebox room, stood immediately outside of the door for help. Their arms, that were still wearing the gloves with glove ports attached, got plastic bags taped over them. This helped contain contamination and, well, blood. Took some nasal swabs to see how much of the actinides in question they’d gotten up the snoot and then took them over to the clinic. They were met in parking lot with a cart full of equipment to delicately get those gloves off and into a waste drum. After plucking the shards, the doctor effectively did bloodletting by letting the wound flow for a bit to hopefully clean the rad materials out before stitching things up. That blood was collected to assess what had been flushed vs. what the Wound Counter saw remaining. 

Yes, there is a specialized piece of radiation detection equipment called a Wound Counter.

Patient was conscious and making jokes through all this. Their favorite was “I don’t look forward to explaining my new track marks to the clearance investigator.” 

The best part of it was that the punch biopsy they did just outright removed all the contamination in one wound. A bioassay which is actually decon is A+ work. The victim was scarred but fine, with quite the dose assigned to them over the next 40 years of their life.