'No fear if it's nuclear'
Contrary to popular misconception, all radiation is not harmful. In fact, radiation has been playing a (radio)active part in improving the quality of life in various spheres, primarily agriculture.
Explaining this, a team of scientists from the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) showed mediapersons in the city recently how radiation technology has led to better crops and fruit harvests. The seminar on ‘Radiation and Quality of Life’ was organized by the Press Club along with the BARC.
Dr A K Sharma, Head of the Food Technology Division, said that while much attention is paid to treating crops at the growing stage, post-harvest technology tends to get neglected. Bad storage practices often lead to food spoiling while it is stored, and causes colossal waste which can easily be avoided.
Radiation processing of food, Dr Sharma explained, consists of exposing food to controlled doses of ionized radiation. Irradiation does not make food radioactive, he clarified, adding that it is an effective alternative to chemical fumigants for controlling infestation and deterioration. It is safe for the environment and human health, much the same as microwave energy, he said.
By manipulating doses, it is possible to do many things with the same technology, Dr Sharma said. For storing and transporting fish, meat and meat products, radiation processing results in enhanced shelf life, improved microbial safety and sterile, shelf-stable products. Radiation processing of spices and herbs is also a safe alternative to fumigants.
When it comes to fruits and vegetables, radiation processing can go a long way in eliminating the 30-35 per cent of spoilage and perishing that occurs during post-harvest storage, he added. Irradiation inhibits sprouting in tubers such as potato, delays ripening in fruits by more than a week, and can be used as a quarantine treatment to replace fumigants. This method of quarantine treatment is what enabled India to begin exporting mangoes to the US in 2007, after radiation treatment was allowed and carried out at the BARC unit in Lasalgaon.
Radiation processing of cereals and legumes at low doses destroys all metamorphic stages of insects and sterilizes adult insects, thereby effectively controlling insect infestation, he said.
The team displayed samples of grains and pulses grown at the BARC’s Trombay premises, using radiation treatment.
Dr S G Bhagwat, Head, Nuclear Agriculture and Biotechnology Division, said the twin aims of radiation processing are making food affordable and ensuring it is nutritionally adequate. Radiation processing can be used for inducing mutations and producing new varieties of plants which may not be possible by hybridization, he said. Also, it can make the precise change that is required and thus gives greater control over developing new varieties.
“Our scientists have been working on many crops which have given us altogether 41 different varieties of crops,” he said. “The most successful is our groundnut programme in which we have produced 15 new varieties.”
He said that radiation technology is becoming increasingly popular, and educational institutes, research organizations and private companies have also been using this technology, showing that more and more people are being convinced about its utility.
Dr Gaurav Malhotra, Senior Scientist, Radiation Medicine Centre, said that nuclear medicine has uses far beyond the generally known X-rays and CT scans. It can also detect heart disease, arterial blockage and kidney disease, he said. Allaying fears about over-use of radiation, he said that it is the responsibility of every practitioner of nuclear medicine to follow the ALARA principle, or As Low As Reasonably Achievable limit, to avoid unnecessary radiation.
Dr K B Sainis, Director of the Bio-Medical Group, explained that radiation is actually all around us, in the environment, in many different forms.
One of the things that BARC does is monitor environmental radiation through its Environmental Assessment Division, using monitors located all over the country. Alerts are sounded in case of increase in radiation, but otherwise people have lived with natural radiation without problems, such as in Kollam and Alappuzha districts of Kerala, he said.
Answering questions about cell tower radiation, Dr Sainis clarified that nuclear radiation is more intense, and very different from microwave radiation that emanates from cell towers. Nuclear radiation, similar to X-rays and CT scans, does not remain in the body, he said.
Core areas of research and development conducted at BARC
>> New crop varieties in oil seeds and pulses. Using radiation-induced mutagenesis and hybridization, these new crop varieties have been developed, released and Gazette-notified for commercial cultivation.
>> Micropropagation protocols for banana, sugarcane, pineapple, potato, turmeric, ginger and medicinal plants.
>> Protocols for direct and indirect somatic embryogenesis have been established in banana, grapes and sugarcane.
>> Cellular and molecular basis of stress tolerance in bacteria and plants.
>> Biological systems for remediation of organic and inorganic pollutants and development of biosensors.
>> Transgenic plants for improving biotic resistance and enhanced remediation of heavy metals.
>> Preservation, disinfestation or hygienization of primary, secondary and tertiary food products and also for quarantine treatment of exportable agricultural commodities.
>> Biological and health effects of chronic high level natural radiation on human population residing in high background radiation areas of Kerala.
>> Studies on mechanism of radiation effects in mammalian systems at low doses, radiation signalling and bystander effect.