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ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH PHYSICS: 50 YEARS OF PROGRESS

Moeller, Dade W.*

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Environmental health physics is an interdisciplinary field, involving study of the release, transport, and fate of radioactive material in the environment. Further, it addresses the interaction of humans with radioactive materials within the ambient (outdoor) environment and with the environments associated with modern technology and lifestyles. It also involves both naturally occurring and artificially produced radionuclides with the former generally being by far the highest source of exposure. In fact, doses from naturally occurring radionuclides are increasingly being used as a benchmark for the establishment of dose rate limits for people. Because of the pioneering work of early environmental health physicists, models exist today that can be used to assess the potential impacts of new nuclear facilities prior to their operation. In fact, these people represent the branch of the health physics profession who conducted environmental monitoring programs and performed the associated research studies that led to the identification of the principal radionuclides of interest, the major pathways and mechanisms through which they expose people, and the doses that may result from radioactive materials in the natural and technologically enhanced environments. One of their most important contributions was the identification and quantification of many of the key parameters that serve as input to such models. Monitoring of nuclear weapons development facilities used during and after World War II was the initial stimulus for the establishment of environmental health physics programs. Thereafter, these programs were expanded both nationally and globally, as a result of the atmospheric weapons testing programs of nations such as France, the People’s Republic of China, the former Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Additional stimuli were provided by the development of the commercial nuclear power industry. Current environmental programs, particularly within the U.S., focus on decontamination and decommissioning of dormant facilities from these earlier defense and commercial programs. The range of the environmental health physics aspects of these activities is the subject of this paper. Presented at the end of the paper is a summary of some of the more important lessons that have been learned. As will be noted, this is an exciting field that will present challenges to health physicists for years to come.

* Dade Moeller & Associates, 257 River Island Road, New Bern, NC 28562-3669.

For correspondence or reprints contact: the author at the above address, or email at dademoeller@cconnect.net.

(Manuscript received 29 February 2004; accepted 16 June 2004)

©2005Health Physics Society