Dealing with ‘radiation phobia’ – if it occurs

The media was recently abuzz with headlines of a radioactive cylinder that went missing in Thailand.

Fear and anxiety were palpable among the country’s citizens, and so was their anger towards the authorities, though not many may even fully understand the implication of the situation.

The cylinder, filled with Cesium-137, a radioactive material, had disappeared from a power plant in Prachin Buri, east of Bangkok, on March 10.

An extensive search was launched by the authorities and eventually, it was found melted with other scrap metal in a local foundry. Fortunately, the scrap metal had not been transported to other places, and there have been no reports yet of victims with radiation injuries.

A similar incident in January 2000 is still fresh in the memory of many Thais. In the Samut Prakam accident, a canister containing Cobalt-60 from an abandoned cancer treatment machine was stolen and improperly disposed of. It caused 10 victims to suffer radiation injury, with the eventual loss of three lives.

More at stake are the thousands of people living around the affected area, who were inadvertently exposed to varying degrees of radiation. Till today, the effects may not be fully known.

The latest incident has reignited concerns about the safety of radioactive materials, and brought into question the competency of authorities in handling a crisis. It also highlighted the people’s tendency to react with “radiation phobia” – a term used to describe the irrational fear of radiation.

While it is important to take radiation safety seriously, it is also vital to understand its nature and role in our lives.

People have had a negative perception of radiation and nuclear energy ever since the discovery of radioactivity more than a century ago because of the harmful consequences on human health as a result of incorrect use.

Disasters in the peaceful application of nuclear energy, such as those that occurred in Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011), had further aggravated our aversion to the phenomena.

Yet, it is important to remember that the health risk from the current situation is significantly lower than that from previous nuclear power mishaps.

Hence, effective risk communication is key in ensuring that the public is well informed of the risk of radiation and other hazardous materials.

The authorities have a responsibility to constantly provide accurate and easy-to-understand information. This may include information about the science of radiation, and what to do if a crisis occurs.

In the modern era, social media may become a bane of communication when misinformation and disinformation start to dominate discussions on the Internet.

A double-edged sword, social media can be used to quickly and easily disseminate fact or fiction to a wide audience. Therefore, it is important for the authorities to monitor its channels and choose a wise response to refute misinformation.

It is natural for people to express anger and frustration, especially when a crisis is repeated due to lack of diligence. The latest slip-up in Thailand was no exception.

However, in an immediate press conference, a local governor called on the people not to panic as the authorities had the situation under control. This was met with scepticism and criticism from non-governmental organisations, which claimed that the authorities were not transparent and had failed to provide clear, comprehensive, and prompt information.

Indeed, choosing to engage in a blame-game does not serve a purpose, and instead, will result only in a complete breakdown of communication and response measures.

If the authorities choose to build trust, they have to show the public that they are taking the necessary steps to address the situation.

Then, people will respond positively by being more cooperative and believing less in conspiracy theories.

Effective risk communication, including through social media, is key to managing risks associated with a radiation crisis, and both the authorities and the public have a role to play in ensuring safety.

The Thai incident serves as a reminder for other nations to ensure the safe handling of radioactive materials and to practice effective risk communication.

This is especially true for Malaysia, whose society seemed oblivious to what had happened to its neighbour.

Perhaps we should be thankful to our authorities for doing a good job in getting the “competent people” to handle hazardous materials. However, it is best that we do not continue to rest on our laurels.

Ng is an Emeritus Professor at the Department of Biomedical Imaging, Faculty of Medicine, Universiti Malaya. He is a medical physicist with expertise in radiation risk communication and the recipient of the 2020 Merdeka Award. Gong just completed his PhD at the Department of Media and Communication Studies, Universiti Malaya.

This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Twentytwo13.