Ionizing radiation is ubiquitous and all living things are, and always have been, exposed to naturally occurring radiation and radioactivity. However, people's activities have added to the levels of radiation and radioactivity globally through fallout from aboveground nuclear (weapons) testing and locally through activities such as mining, production of phosphate fertilizers, oil and gas off-shore platforms, and nuclear fuel cycle activities among others.

Until quite recently, the prevailing view has been that, if humans were adequately protected, then ''other living things are also likely to be sufficiently protected'' (International Commission on Radiological Protection, 1977) or ''other species are not put at risk'' (International Commission on Radiological Protection, 1991). Consistent with this view, a great deal of effort has been made over the past 50 years or so to study the behavior of radioactivity in the environment, particularly as it relates to potential pathways of exposure to humans. However, by the 1990s, attempts were made to look in general at the effects of radiation on plants and animals at levels implied by the radiation protection standards for humans. Events such as the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992 and the Convention on Biodiversity gave impetus to environmental protection in general and stimulated international and national agencies to become more active in radioecotoxicology.

The 1996 report of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) was of seminal importance as it was the first time that the UNSCEAR Committee had examined the effects of ionizing radiation on nonhuman biota. Until that time, UNSCEAR, along with other international and national organizations, had considered living organisms primarily as part of the human food chain.

Since 1996, there has been increasing attention given to the potential effects of ionizing radiation on the environment; this increasing interest since 1996 is well illustrated by the numerous activities ofnational and international organizations such as the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the European Community, the US Department of Energy, the United Kingdom Environmental Agency, and the International Atomic Energy Agency, which have undertaken initiatives to investigate the effects of ionizing radiation on the environment.

The following sections build on the dialog that has taken place over the last 11 years and provides an overview of the current generic approach to assessing risks to nonhuman biota from ionizing radiation and radioactivity in the environment, including discussion of selected issues unique to ionizing radiation.

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