Berkeley Lab Releases Tritium Risk Assessment Results

October 5, 1995

Contact: Lynn Yarris,

The Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has released to the public the results of a "risk assessment" conducted for its National Tritium Labeling Facility. The assessment showed that people who work at the Laboratory, as well as those on the UC Berkeley campus or who live in surrounding neighborhoods incur virtually no increased risk of cancer as a result of the facility's operations.

Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen that emits beta particles (high-speed electrons) as it decays. If one or more hydrogen atoms in a chemical compound are replaced with atoms of tritium, biomedical researchers can monitor the emission of radiation and follow the compound as it moves through living cells. This is an important technique for studying biological processes or testing the effectiveness of new pharmaceutical drugs. The Berkeley Lab is the only user-facility in the United States where tritium-labeled compounds for biomedical studies are prepared.

The radiation emitted by tritium cannot penetrate clothing or skin, and travels only about five millimeters (two-tenths of an inch) through the air. However, tritium can be taken into the body by breathing tritiated water-vapor in the air, or by eating or drinking tritium-contaminated food or water. In response to community concerns, the Berkeley Lab conducted a formal analysis of the risks posed by the National Tritium Labeling Facility, the only significant source of tritium at the Laboratory.

Specific findings of the assessment showed that Laboratory employees who work in the immediate area outside of the facility are exposed to tritium levels that are one-ten thousandth (.0001) of the occupational health limits set by federal regulations and recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection. Their added risk of developing a fatal cancer as a result of this exposure amounts to less than one-percent of what everyone in this country risks as a result of natural or "background radiation" -- radiation that is always present in the environment. The increased cancer risks for local residents and people on the UC Berkeley campus, as well as other Laboratory workers, amount to one-one-hundredth of one-percent.

The risk assessment report, which is 90 pages long, including introduction and appendices, was prepared by Thomas E. McKone and Kevin P. Brand, of the Health and Ecological Assessment Division at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. It is entitled: "Environmental Health-Risk Assessment for Tritium Releases at the National Tritium Labeling Facility at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Copies can be obtained by calling Shaun Fennessey, of the Berkeley Lab's Community Relations Department. Her number is (510) 486-5122.

The Berkeley Lab is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory located in Berkeley, California. It conducts unclassified scientific research and is managed by the University of California.