Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The Radiating Island

(Hot springs of Lisvori)


As far as we know Marie Curie (1867–1934) was probably the first person to die from radioactivity poisoning. The Polish-French physicist and chemist is regarded as one of the discoverers of radioactivity, a natural phenomenon by which material emits ionizing particles. In her time it was not thought radiation was dangerous which may be the reason she died (of anaemia) at the age of 66.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the world fell in love with the discovery. Not only was X-radiation a big step forward in medical science, the radioactive element radium was for a short time popular in the home pharmacy. In the Twenties and Thirties you could buy beauty creams, toothpaste, salves, soaps and even chocolates all containing a little bit of radium; products that were thought to be good for your health. Pads that had to be held to the nose or mouth (or elsewhere) were manufactured to cure almost any ailment.

Since the discovery of radioactivity in 1896 it also became known that many hot springs contained radium and so they too were thought to be very healthy. There was a run on the spas, but only for rich people who could afford to travel. They bathed in it, they sniffed its air and drank plenty of this radioactive water. The question was: how to bring it to the masses?

Adding radium to water and bottling it was no good because its radioactive properties soon decayed. The solution they found was a radioactive crock, or jar, in which you could make radioactive water at home. You put the jar in water overnight and then you could drink as much irradiated ‘healing’ water as you liked. The best known jar in those early days was made in San Francisco - the Revigator. Hundred of thousands of them were sold. In 1929 a Revigator cost $29.90 which was quite a sum, so it was a goldmine of a business.

In the Thirties they realized that radioactive products may not be so healthy. As they contained more and more radium in their miracle healers some people took overdoses. Even though radioactive products were banned you could still find some (illegal of course) products for sale as late as the 1980s.

What many people probably don’t know is that every day we are subjected to some kind of radiation from both the atmosphere and the earth. Even people radiate, so when you sleep with somebody, you get it from your bedfellow! Natural radiation varies from place to place. It’s higher in Norway than Germany and at some places on the earth like India, China and Brazil it can be even higher.

Very high natural radiation has been measured in Ramsar, in the north of Iran. The effect it has on people who live there has been the subject of a scientific study.

As we do in Lesvos, the region of Ramsar has plenty of hot springs, all with a varying amount of radium. Both tourists and locals use these springs and nobody seems to care about radiation, they only become healthier.

I sometimes say (as a joke) that the small amounts of (unharmful) radioactivity here in the hot springs of Lesvos make you resistant to radioactivity, just as insects become resistant to some pesticides. Anyway, the research seems to confirm that. The inhabitants of Ramsar have built up a resistance to radioactivity!

I have no idea how much radiation comes from the hot springs of Lesvos. People have been living here with these magic springs for so long I’m not worried that there’s a little bit more radiation here than is measured back in Holland.

Scientists agree that a small amount of natural radiation does not harm anyone. Radiation from a nuclear plant is something different. Sir James Chadwick, an English physicist, identified the neutron in 1934, a discovery that led the way to nuclear energy. A year later he received the Nobel price for his work. The results of his research are not so noble: they changed the world.

Greece has no nuclear plants, nor has neighbouring country Turkey but one is planned for Akkuyu, on the Mediterranean coast in the southern province of Mersin, and there are plans for another one at Sinop on the Black Sea. They may not have not learned anything from the recent events in Japan, because it was recently announced that construction of the first power plant (to be built by the Russians) will go ahead and should be working in a few years. Both the Turkish premier Tayyip Erdogan and his energy minister Hilmi Guler have told the world that their nuclear plant will be able to resist any natural disaster. Nevertheless, protests are flaring up, because the site is next to a fault line in an active earthquake region.

Here on our healthy radium-active island nature is moving into its best season: spring. And who knows, if those researchers at Ramsar are right I am building up a resistance to radioactivity. So curing yourself in the hot springs acquires another meaning: preparing yourself against nuclear disasters!

Resistant or not, I am definitely against nuclear power plants, especially when they are built in a part of the world with a very high risk of earthquakes.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2011

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