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The (not-so) Green side of Medicine: Radioactive Waste

I've recently been learning about medicinal chemistry and there's one point that's made itself painstakingly obvious to me: laboratories are scary. Like, turn-into-a-rat-and-hide-in-the-sewers-of-China scary. Okay, I'm exaggerating, BUT THEY'RE PRETTY SCARY! But the main topic I want to discuss today is radioactive wastes. They are definitely the scariest.

Let's start off with radionuclides. Simply put, they are radioactive nuclides. Better phrased, it means isotopes that emit particles or radiation as they decay. Radiation can be natural or artificially induced. But why would medical practitioners need radioactive species? Well, the main purposes entail:

diagnosing the functioning of organs (X-rays and the like) from the outside; "in vitro"

treatment (chemotherapy, etc.), where target cells can be destroyed from the inside; "in vivo"

sterilization of equipment

But let's not delve too deep in how people get "treatment" by attacking their body with radioactive beams. Instead, I want to focus on how the radioactive waste is dealt with.

There are 2 main types of radioactive waste: low level (LLW) and high level (HLW). Low level wastes have a short half-life and low radioactivity. LLWs mostly entail physical wastes such as syringes, lab supplies and tools, swabs and protective clothing. LLWs are generally stored in containers for weeks before being buried and incinerated in specially made facilities. Over what can be a span of months or years, the LLWs gradually fade to their standard environmental levels.

Higher level wastes, as you may have guessed, have a longer half-life and emit higher radiation levels. In fact, radioactive water is a major byproduct of the cooling process because the HLW particles tend to have too much energy to be processed or recycled without treatment. HLW disposal means immobilizing the particles with processes such as fusing them in glass or synthetic rocks and then encasing them in steel cylinders and burying them deep under the Earth in HLW specialized facilities.

This radioactive-treatment plan becomes a sinister cycle. If, at any point in the radionuclide processing and waste disposal, there is a leak of these nuclear materials into the environment, there can be devastating effects. Radioactive particles can cause cell damage and various mutations, can lead to birth defects and definitely a compromised immune system. These lethal substances can spread to any and all water, and bioaccumulation and magnification up the food web will amplify their tragic symptoms. Plants, animals and humans are unknowingly left exposed to these radioactive threats.

Oh, and of course, interaction with anything radioactive can lead to cancer. Back to square 1, I see.

So exactly how beneficial is all this radioactive therapy if, in the end, it just leads to more people and wildlife becoming sick with the original ailment? Of course, there are many laws and regulations implemented to try and prevent nuclear waste from getting into the environment, but that's also true for things like gasoline. Plus, accidents happen. And they usually don't have a harbinger to warn us. Why does everything have to be so complicated?

This post has been a bit biased for the environmental side, but I have an opinion that wanted to present itself and I hope it wasn't offensive to anyone. Comment your thoughts below!

This was Taz on a rant :)

I've attached multiple links throughout the post and listed some more of my sources below, if anyone is interested.

and Mr.Lee's chem 35 notes !

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