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Of nuclear cardiology practices and radiation exposure

Recently, the International Atomic Energy Agency assessed global nuclear cardiology practices and radiation exposure. Results taken from 65 countries that were part of its Nuclear Cardiology Protocols Cross-Sectional Study to characterise patient radiation doses show that even a mild case of COVID-19 can increase a person’s risk of cardiovascular problems for at least a year after diagnosis. Ronita Torcato had recently attended an exhibition put up by the the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board for the media and comes up with some interesting findings 

Pictures show AERB scientists at various stalls at the exhibition held specially for the media. Photos: R T

Did you know that bananas and the human body are radioactive? Well, scientists at the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) enlightened the audience in a green and lovely enclave called Anushaktinagar in Mumbai, located a stone’s throw away from Govandi, the city’s slum rehab epicentre. There we were, in this repository of knowledge of modern science, sauntering through a special exhibition showcasing such AERB innovations as diagnostic imaging which allows doctors to peer inside a patient’s body and scrutinize the anatomy and organs. As we listen to explanations that the contraption can be shared by hospitals, we begin to enjoy the experience, this unhurried impromptu class. 

Later, perusing Nuclear Monitor, a magazine published by the Amsterdam-based World Information Service on Energy (WISE), you learn that exposure from Chernobyl and Fukushima equates to radioactivity from 6.48 trillion bananas! We knew bananas have high-levels of potassium, what we were clueless about is that a fraction of all potassium is radioactive. Each banana is said to emit .01 millirem of radiation.Oh, humble banana! We get exposed to higher radiation doses when we travel by air or sit much too close for comfort to the idiot box or, refuse to let go of our mobile phones. 

India’s first nuclear weapons tests were conducted on 28 May 1974 on an army base in Pokhran, Rajasthan.The tests were, ironically, codenamed Smiling Buddha. In quick response, Pakistan followed up with atomic test explosions a fortnight later. Five years later, General Electric built India’s first nuclear power plant in Tarapur. Land of ahimsa, India is among only eight countries in the world that have a nuclear weapons programme. Currently, India has six nuclear power plants in the pipeline. 

AERB Executive Director C.S. Varghese and senior scientists assure us that safety regulations of nuclear installations are firmly in place. AERB follows a three tier safety review process with the Ministry of Environment and Forests & Climate Change, academic institutions and the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). Earlier this year, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) gave AERB a thumbs-up for being thoroughly professional in ensuring nuclear and radiation safety. 

Even so, we can’t help but wonder if Ukraine’s Zaphorizhzhya Nuclear Power Station and Chernobyl, both under Russian occupation and marked by denial of radiation-related data by the two warring governments, were instrumental in AERB’S decision to open its doors to the media.

Few are aware that IAEA is helping fight the good the fight against cardio-vascular disease by  assisting its member states in the  use of nuclear science and technology to track and monitor CVDs. 

Recently, the IAEA assessed global nuclear cardiology practices and radiation exposure. Results were taken from 65 countries which were part of its Nuclear Cardiology Protocols Cross-Sectional Study to characterise patient radiation doses. One of the largest studies to evaluate the long-term cardiovascular outcomes of COVID was published in February this year in Nature Medicine. The findings are dire:  even a mild case of COVID-19 can increase a person’s risk of cardiovascular problems for at least a year after diagnosis.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) cardiovascular illnesses are the leading cause of death globally, taking an 17.9 million lives each year, an estimated 32 per cent of all deaths worldwide.  Significantly, over 80 per cent of CVD deaths occur in low- and middle- income countries which tend to ignore health concerns and the importance of keeping hearts healthy.  

As it happens, a number of individuals die in their sleep without their near and dear ones knowing of any pain or struggle. Dying while sleeping may seem like a peaceful and painless rite of passage. But it’s not so. Nocturnal deaths can be triggered by any of these factors: sudden cardiac arrest, abnormal heart rhythms, myocardial infarction (aka heart attack) and congestive heart failure. About one in five heart attacks are silent — the person is not aware of it. One common consequence from such heart conditions is the failure of the heart to pump an adequate supply of blood to the rest of the body. This can be fatal.

According to the Atlanta-based Centre for Disease Control (CDC) which is part of the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, one person dies every 34 seconds in the United States from cardiovascular disease. And someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds! 

Commendably, the US government ran a decade long fully-funded program to build atomic hearts to save Americans dying of heart failure. 

In 1967, the US National Heart Institute and the Atomic Energy Agency began to develop an artificial heart powered by plutonium-238. The atomic hearts would have pumped human blood with the energy from the radioactive decay of  isotopes. However, the endeavour was doomed by technical hurdles, infighting, and the reluctance of Americans to trust medical devices powered by atomic energy. 

Last year, surgeons at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore transplanted the genetically modified heart of pig into a terminally ill man. What if a porcine virus sneaked into humans? This is shown with devastating effect in Steven Soderbergh’s film, Contagion. Not only pigs, sheep, rabbits and  mice, even baboons have been used in transplants. Xeno-transplantation or the transplantation of  animal organs into people is a key factor in H.G. Wells’ post Darwinian dystopian sci fi novel , The Island of Dr Moreau. A staunch supporter of Indian independence, Wells predicted the atomic bomb in his 1914 novel, The World Set Free.

Free indeed! Only think of Dr Christiaan Barnard, the celebrated cardiac surgeon from apartheid-haunted South Africa who performed the world’s first human-to-human heart transplant operation. (His father, a pastor, had dedicated himself to the spiritual care of the mixed race population of a small rural town.) Bombay Hospital and Medical Research Centre’s Dr B.K. Goyal, an eminent cardiologist and medical educator who cut a dashing figure with his bow ties, had brought Dr Barnard to the city for special presentations on the finer points of cardiac operations. 

(The writer is a government-accredited journalist who enjoys travelling, music, books and scripture study, not necessarily in that order.)

Students receive certificates

109 students from the 65th Batch of BARC Training School received certificates on completion of one-year orientation courses for engineering graduates and science postgraduates for 2021. The first rankers from 12 science and engineering disciplines received the prestigious Homi Bhabha Medal. Pramod Kumar Mishra, principal secretary to the Prime Minister of India was the chief guest at the event. He emphasised the Panch-Pran goal for the next 25 years, announced by  Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the Red Fort on 15th August this year. The function was presided over by K. N. Vyas, secretary, Department of Atomic Energy, and chairman, Atomic Energy Commission. The BARC Training School was established in 1957 by Homi Jehangir Bhabha with the aim of imparting specialised education and training in the area of nuclear science and engineering.

October – December 2022

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