If it affects the environment, it’ll affect us too
In the event of a radiological or biological incident, harmful materials or pathological agents are released into the atmosphere. Accidental, deliberate or natural, not only does this impact people and their daily lives, but also the environment. This includes personal property, agricultural land, water sources, natural food sources, other native species and more.
Long-lasting and widespread
Radioactive sources released into the environment can contaminate air, water, surfaces, soil, plants, people and/or animals in the affected area1. More unpredictable environmental factors such as wind and rain can also further disperse radioactive material, with higher-level winds potentially spreading contamination far beyond the country of origin into different urban, aquatic and terrestrial habitats.
Contaminated animals and plants, just like humans, can experience acute radiation poisoning along with an increased cancer risk due to DNA and cell damage. Furthermore, if they consume a radioactive source, radioisotopes can become further ingrained in food chains2. For instance, following the 2011 Fukushima Nuclear disaster, seafood in the direct vicinity of the accident in the Pacific Ocean was found to be contaminated above the regulatory limits with more long-lived radioisotopes. This necessitated regular monitoring by the Government and some importers, along with action to help prevent the further spread of contaminated water3.
The extensive radiological impact of Chernobyl
Despite the fact the accident occurred back in 1986, the environmental impact can still be observed to this day in the red/brown appearance of the dead pines in the Red Forest. Chernobyl still has highly radioactive areas, as revealed by Bristol University and NCNR who conducted aerial surveys of the Red Forest using Kromek detectors in 2019.
Depending on the half-life of the source released, radioactive sources can remain in the environment for a few days, decades or even centuries. In the 10 day-long major release of radioactive material, over 100 radioactive elements were released into the atmosphere, contaminating the local area but also international areas as a result of radioactive fallout. Although the majority were short-lived, the more dangerous radioistopes of Iodine (8 day half-life), Strontium (29 years half-life) and Caesium (30 years half-life) were also released, with Strontium and Caesium likely still active in the environment today4.
The more short-lived contaminant out of the three, I-131, became of major concern in the drinking water from the Kiev reservoir and the milk in Belarus. The latter was due to the consumption of radioiodine by agricultural plants and animals. Meanwhile, the long-lived contaminants of Cs-137 (half-life of 30 years) were found in milk and meat, and had the highest activity recording in forest products, which local people hunt and forage for5.
A mixed bag
Only recently as a result of COVID-19 have the effects of biological incidents on the environment been fully realised. Surprisingly, in many ways, the environment benefitted COVID-19, with lockdowns reducing daily human activities. Decreases in greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution and noise pollution were all recorded, and reduced footfall in tourist areas gave way to the potential for ecological recovery. Nonetheless, these were temporary, and will likely disappear with lockdowns ending.
However, a more long-lasting negative impact on the environment arose from the increased use of disposable disinfectants, masks and gloves, along with the often-haphazard disposal of medical and untreated waste6.
Flipping it on it’s head
Not only do biological incidents affect the environment, but threats to the natural environment are also making the occurrence of biological threats more likely. Naturally-occurring biothreats such as vector-borne diseases and zoonoses are now more probable as a result of changes to patterns in human, plant and animal health. This is becoming increasingly influenced by rapid climate change and globalisation e.g. intensive farming, trade travel and conflict7.
To safeguard our environment, we must tackle threats at their root cause
Depending on the nature and dynamics of the incident, effects can be far-reaching and long-lasting, requiring extensive monitoring and remediation. With both biological and radiological threats on the rise, it is essential we as globe possess the strategies and technologies to mitigate such events, and aim to prevent them altogether.
With early warning systems in place, both radiological and biological threats can be detected, identified, mapped and monitored effectively with speed and sufficient data. This provides decision-makers with a wealth of information to sufficiently inform next-steps. Kromek’s networked static, handheld, vehicular and aerial detectors constantly monitoring target areas facilitate prompt, coordinated action via rapid response spectrometry. Illicit radioactive sources can be successfully tracked and seized ahead of an incident, the exact mixture of radioisotopes present quickly identified to inform specific timely, responses, and hotspots pinpointed for clean-ups and remediation. Having access to radiological data before and after the event is also essential to understand what has changed in the environment and what continues to change in real-time. This reveals what needs to be done to return to the affected environment to a stable state; close to normal as possible.
Currently in development to counter biological threats is Kromek’s integrated environmental monitoring system: a ‘lab in a box’ designed to operate autonomously with minimal user interaction in any location. Bringing Next Generation Sequencing into the field, this system will allow for constant surveillance and the agnostic identification of biological agents from a variety of sample types. The coordinated, fast actionable intelligence supplied by this standalone or networked system enables outbreaks to be managed appropriately and in a timely manner, with the dynamics of an outbreak quickly gauged and countermeasures rapidly enacted before escalation, demanding fewer resources.
This system also aligns with the World Health Organisation’s ‘One Health’ approach8. Its significance was realised following COVID-19, which emphasised the prevalence and importance of the connections between the health of people, animals and ecosystems. As a result, this strategy promotes inter-departmental collaboration to address challenges in health, such as the emergence of infectious diseases, and encourages a more ‘green recovery’ from COVID-19 and other infectious diseases that may arise. The aim is to strengthen this cross-sectoral collaboration and ‘promote the development of integrated indicators and safeguards to address upstream drives of disease, with a focus on prevention’; exactly what Kromek’s integrated environmental monitoring system is being designed to achieve.
Take a look at Kromek’s specific range of solutions in Environmental Surveillance