Austin Olson, a senior health physics student in BU’s Honors Program, traveled to Indianapolis this summer to present findings from his independent study at a meeting of the Health Physics Society (HPS), attended by health physics professionals from around the world. Olson’s research looked at how effective damaged lead aprons can be in protecting medical personnel from dangerous radiation.
The amount of radiation that personnel can be exposed to while working with X-rays is regulated. Lead aprons protect both doctors and patients from radiation during treatment, but current research on the protective abilities of damaged aprons is limited. For this reason, the inspection process for aprons is strict and aprons with only very small amounts of damage are disposed of to avoid risk, Olson says.
“If someone’s wearing an apron with damage, how much radiation are they getting, and is that enough to cause harm to them or even get close to the legal limit?” These are the questions Olson wanted to answer with his research.
Larger hospitals can have thousands of lead aprons in circulation, and they must be individually inspected for damage. This task is often left to small teams of health physics personnel. Additionally, it can cost hundreds of dollars to replace a single damaged apron. If the need for disposal is reduced, hospitals could save a lot of time and money, Olson believes.
“The main goal is to take off the work load of these people, show that we don’t have to inspect aprons as thoroughly, and that they’re not going to hurt whoever’s wearing them if they’re a little bit broken,” he says. “We want to show that if the damage is not big enough to be seen by examining it quickly, then it’s not big enough to worry about. We’re trying to prove that little holes will not hurt you.”
Olson’s experiment involved cutting and punching holes in an apron, then using small devices that detect radiation exposure to measure “scatter,” X-ray radiation a doctor may be exposed to after it bounces off of a patient. The devices measured the amount of radiation allowed through by holes of various sizes. He then ran the data collected through a simulation of a human to determine the doses of radiation an actual person would receive.
“No one’s tested that yet because it’s really weak and sometimes hard to get a hold of,” he says. “It’s all just theory currently, and we wanted to show that yes… scatter will go through a vest the way we expect it to go through a vest.”
Olson also presented his research at the 14th annual Penn State Radiation Safety Roundtable, an event at which radiation safety professionals gather to share problems they’ve encountered in their own hospitals with researchers in attendance. Olson says that his experience presenting at Penn State was important for his research.
“We want this to get the ball rolling and spark discussions. We wanted to get the research out there, so that way people can start thinking of real ways to fix this problem.”
Olson’s research is set to be published in the Operational Radiation Safety Journal, one of two major health physics safety journals sent to members of the HPS, by the end of 2015.
-Nick Cellucci ’16