Podcast: Isotopes

Radiation is most infamous for its harmful effects on living things, but when used properly, it can have some beneficial effects as well. Radioisotopes, radioactive versions of ordinary elements, can trace the paths of substances through complicated systems and diagnose and treat diseases like cancer. As Angela Creager highlighted in her book, Life Atomic and this week’s podcast, much of today’s radiation applications in medicine can themselves be traced back to the 1950s when the U.S. Atomic Energy Agency wanted to promote the peaceful side of atomic power.

The idea of using atomic energy for medicine has been around since radiation was discovered. Some of the early treatments were quackery, but some haven’t fundamentally changed very much over the years. Though its gone through numerous refinements over the years, teletherapy bombards cancer cells with targeted radiation.

Image: National Institutes of Health

Patients would sometime drink atomic cocktails of radioactive iodine that collected in their thyroid glands. Detectors could pick up the emitted radiation and actually draw a picture of the patient’s internal organ.

Image: The Department of Energy

The production of these radioisotopes quickly reached industrial levels. Just ten years after trace amounts of isotopes had to be slowly and painstakingly synthesized using cyclotrons, reactors, like the High Flux Isotope Reactor at Oak Ridge, were able to produce vast quantities of almost any isotope.

Image: The Department of Energy

However there was a dark side to this isotope zeal. Scientists performed experiments on people, and not always with their consent. Many of of these tests carried out at AEC labs across the country, were kept secret for decades.

You may also read these articles