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Topic section: Radioactivity
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Nobel Laureate Ernst Rutherford with his student Hans Geiger in their laboratory in Manchester, 1912.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
In the early 1950s, no-one worried much about industrial radioactivity. Luminous instrument dials and watches were common and radioactive compounds were present in most chemistry laboratories. Scientists took only minimal precautions when working with radioactive substances.

The situation began to change in 1954 with an American H-bomb (hydrogen-bomb) test at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. A Japanese fishing boat was accidentally contaminated with fallout and two crew members subsequently died of radiation-related diseases. Scientists became aware of the dangers of fall-out – especially those posed by strontium-90 – from American and Soviet nuclear bomb tests. Fortunately, testing for radioactivity from this fall-out was easy as the German nuclear physicists Hans Geiger and Walther Müller had developed the well-known Geiger-Müller counter in 1928. As a result of surveys carried out in the mid-1950s, some scientists campaigned for a ban on nuclear bomb tests. Although this campaign was very controversial, it eventually brought about the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, which suspended atmospheric tests by the United States, the Soviet Union and the UK.

The public continued to be worried about the possible effects of radioactivity

With the exception of the fall-out from the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986, radioactive fall-out had ceased to be a major concern, despite the continuation of atmospheric nuclear tests by France (until 1974) and China (until 1980). Nonetheless, the public continued to be worried about the possible effects of radioactivity, especially around nuclear power stations and research centres, such as Sellafield in Cumbria and Dounreay in Caithness.

Armed with data from the 1950s about the after-effects of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, physicians and health organisations became increasingly concerned about the long-term effects of relatively low doses of radiation. As radi
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Radioactive radon gas seeping into homes is a problem in parts of Cornwall.
Note: The house appearing in this photograph is NOT one of those affected by radon gas.
Credit: Courtesy of Pandora Ward

ation monitors became more sensitive, ever-lower levels of radiation could be monitored. One area of concern was the build-up of radioactive radon gas (produced by uranium in various rocks and soils) in the basements of houses. This radiation is too low to be measured using a Geiger counter, but accounts for about half of the average person’s exposure to ionising radiation. Increasingly strict regulations have led to the disappearance of radioactive objects from everyday life, for instance, the once familiar bottles of yellow uranium nitrate solution in school laboratories. It is a case of better safe than sorry. Although radioactivity poses a small risk to everyone – as we are all exposed to it at low levels – it has not been the cause of widespread public anxiety since the Chernobyl disaster, except in specific geographical areas associated with nuclear power or radon.

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Topic section: Pesticides
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When DDT and other insecticides were first introduced in the mid-1940s, they were considered to be a boon to society, preventing disease and increasing the supply of food. As evidence of their impact on the environment mounted, powerful devices were developed to detect even tiny traces of DDT. But the public was not reassured.  > more

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Topic section: CFCs and the ozone layer
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CFCs were the first high-tech gases, used in the 1950s to make domestic fridges and aerosol sprays, the symbols of a new way of life. Considered to be completely harmless chemicals, CFCs were beginning to wreak severe damage to the fragile ozone layer that protects the Earth. And no-one had the faintest inkling that this was happening  > more
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