Debbie Knight

Radiation safety tales, part 4: Survey meters & gorilla suits

In observation on August 22, 2011 at 10:48 am

Ah, the survey meter (also known as a Geiger counter).

For scientists who use radioactive materials in their research, this portable instrument is very important in assuring lab safety. It can be used during the experiment to determine if you successfully radioactively labeled a protein or DNA or RNA. It can ensure that the protective latex gloves you are wearing haven’t been contaminated while you were handling the radioactive material. And it can help you locate an area (a “hot” spot) where radioactivity may have been accidentally spilled (even a single droplet).

It’s also important to have this meter calibrated on a yearly basis.

Our survey meter was calibrated and it was as easy as handing it to our friendly radiation safety officer. He took it back to his secret (or not-so-secret lair) and calibrated it. The meter was then returned to us the next day.

This was not always the case.

A number of years ago, it was the research lab’s responsibility to have the survey meter calibrated. This meant schlepping it across campus to the Office of Radiation Safety.

I remember the first time I took the meter over to radiation safety, as I was walking across campus mall people were intentionally avoiding me by giving me a rather wide berth. I didn’t think much of it at first until I realized they weren’t avoiding me per se, but they were avoiding the strange contraption I was carrying.  Had I been wearing a gorilla suit or sporting a big biohazard emblem on my forehead, I might have had the same reaction. I must admit I would have felt less self-conscious had I been wearing the gorilla suit.

I’m certainly glad this has all been neatly tucked into the past and that our friendly radiation safety officer now saves me from such psychological “trauma.”

I do often wonder if people nowadays would even notice I was carrying a survey meter across campus. And if they did, would they even question it? Probably not.

I’m pretty confident they wouldn’t question a person wearing a gorilla suit either.

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