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No. 12 – Is It Okay to be Afraid of Radiation?

January 12, 2011
A few years ago I was measuring a spot of P-32 contamination in a hallway outside a posted laboratory, when a woman in a lab coat came by. She heard my Geiger counter and as she walked by, she looked down at me and said, “Does that mean I won’t be able to have any children?” The President of a state League of Women voters said at a conference, “Not a single atom of high level waste should be allowed to escape into the environment.”

An office manager, after recently completing a course in radiation safety, was handed a Geiger counter to survey an isotope storage area. When the counter started screaming in his hand, he later admitted that he was extremely nervous. A clerical worker accidentally ingested a small amount of P-32 and she said, “I am very upset, my daughter is pregnant and last night I kissed her, and I don’t want to do anything that might affect my grandchild.”

What Do All of These People Have in Common?

Each of these people is expressing their fear of radiation. Are these fears rational or irrational? Is it okay for these people to have these fears? As you consider your answer, ask yourself, how strong is your urge to change or correct these people’s perceptions of radiation risks? Would you like to tell them that they do not have to worry or be afraid? Be honest with yourself. Could you face anyone of these people and not try to do something to change their feelings?

If your first response is to try to change their feelings, they may interpret this as a discount. That is, your response may sound like you are saying their feelings are not okay, therefore they are wrong and it is not okay to be afraid of radiation. When we tell someone, who is worrying about radiation, “Not to worry,” we are discounting his or her feelings. In the feeling language, feelings are just feelings. They are neither good nor bad, or right or wrong.

To open the door for dialogue with people who are afraid of radiation, we have to first affirm that their feelings are okay. People are entitled to their feelings and we do not have a responsibility or the right to try to change them. We do have the right to present information about radiation, which may lead to a change of feelings. However, if our primary goal is to change feelings about radiation, then we are on the wrong track and doomed to failure. We cannot control people’s feelings or their thoughts. We can only present information with empathy and understanding which may lead to feelings similar to our own.

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