Alternative Technology to Cesium-137 Irradiators

November 12, 2020

Blood transfusions are vital procedures that save the lives of many people around the world. Hospitals administer safety measures surrounding this procedure through a machine that utilizes radioactive materials for sterilization. Components of the machine have to be sterile to ensure that the blood transfusion is safe and free from infectious bacteria. These devices that save lives are called blood irradiators.

Blood irradiators are essential in hospital operations. However, as much as it saves lives, it can be just as dangerous as it can end lives. This danger makes blood irradiators both a blessing and a curse. For this reason, medical professionals are looking into safer alternatives that pose less risk.


Cesium-137 is a crucial component in operating blood irradiators. Small amounts of this highly radioactive isotope calibrate sterilization of body fluids and tissues. This function helps prevent fatal diseases associated with blood transfusion like the Transfusion-Associated Graft-Versus-Host Disease (TA-GVHD). This issue occurs when the white blood cells being transfused attack the tissue of the recipient. Cases of TA-GVHD are rare, but more often than not, these can lead to death. The fatality rate for the proliferation of viable T lymphocytes resulting in TA-GVHD is 90%.

Unfortunately, Cesium-137 can be extremely poisonous, as it can quickly get mixed into water, air, and soil. It is also important to note that this radioactive isotope does not occur naturally. Cesium-137 gets produced in the aftermath of nuclear reactions, which indicates how dangerous it can be. So, failure to properly contain it can result in harm. Even a tiny amount of human contact with cesium-137 can result in radiation sickness, burns, and death.

Furthermore, the component cesium-137 in hospital machinery presses a security challenge. This substance creates a radiological dispersal device (RDD), commonly known as a dirty bomb. RDDs built with cesium-137 have a particularly nasty history of resulting in severe casualties from the blast. In 1987, accidental exposure to cesium-137 in Goiâna, Brazil, took the lives of four people. Apart from that, the aftermath of these incidents can also produce widespread panic, decontamination expenses, long-term evacuations, and psychological damage. The Goiânia accident exposed about 112,000 people to radioactive contamination. From those exposed, there were 249 confirmed contaminations.

Properties of cesium-137 are fine and powdery, which indicates that it can be soluble when mixed with water. Since liquid substances are particularly susceptible to dispersal, there is a high probability for RDD incidents associated with cesium-137. Medical professionals strive to look for an alternative, considering that blood irradiators can easily be dismantled for cesium-137 when left with the wrong hands.

Uses of Cesium-137 Blood Irradiator

Blood irradiators are medical devices that expose blood to gamma radiation to sterilize the blood transfusion. Apart from the healthcare industry, irradiators are also vital to commercial, research, and more. Irradiators eradicate bacteria and insects to clean products and preserve the freshness of food ingredients. Food containers, spices, fruits, vegetables, pharmaceutical supplies, and products are most often irradiated using this device.

The operation of any type of irradiator needs to comply with model-specific standards. To minimize risks, operators should control radiation exposure for as low as reasonably achievable (ALARA).

Dangers of Cesium-137 Blood Irradiator

As mentioned, the cesium-137 in irradiators can result in radioactive contamination. Overexposure and direct contact can result in burns, diseases, or worst, a casualty. There have been cases in the past when accidental exposure with cesium-137 has poisoned thousands of people. Moreover, unauthorized use of this device can wreak havoc. Blood irradiators not stored with heightened security can be prone to theft. When fallen into the wrong hands, dismantling irradiators tend to foster radiological terrorism.

In 2012, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report to propose measures to improve radiological sources’ security in medical facilities. The agency stated to prescribe extensive security practices to protect potentially radioactive medical equipment in the US. The report also includes a comprehensive detail of many hospitals’ lapses in the US that lead to tampering and theft. Most US medical facilities are easily accessible. Several hospitals failed to put their irradiators in restricted areas with proper security measures like cameras and alarms.

Thus, most medical professionals heavily suggested phasing out the use of cesium-137. They are in a constant search for non-radioactive alternatives to keep the US safe from radioactive contamination. Additionally, this prevents unauthorized access to radiological sources altogether.

Are There Alternatives?

There has been non-radioactive machinery that does not require the use of cesium-137. Medical professionals acknowledge the possibility of irradiating blood using alternatives to using cesium-137. A few other options include x-ray technology, linear accelerators (LINACs), and dedicated photochemical ("UV") sterilizers. The following countries have been utilizing these alternative technologies since they emerged.

  • Canada
  • Germany
  • Italy
  • Sweden
  • United Kingdom
  • France
  • Norway
  • Japan

Despite the harmful effects of cesium-137 in irradiators, the US pharmaceutical industries seem to be behind the transition. Hospitals in New York City expect to purge irradiators before the year ends. The Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration's Office of Radiological Security (NNSA ORS) also facilitated the replacement of a handful of cesium irradiators. Researchers have also suggested implementing licensing to operate cesium irradiators to enhance security measures. Following the Big Apple’s lead, several states have made an effort to prevent their citizens from its dangers. This choice should get prioritized to protect our health and national security.

Despite all the progress made, there is still much work and research needed to move forward with a permanent change. There are still states that host radiological sources in huge quantities. California, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Texas still utilize irradiators with weak security practices. Thus, these states have been attractive for terrorists who are shopping for the necessities to create and unleash RDDs.

If an attack of this nature were to succeed, such a reaction can foster radioactive contamination and ensure widespread panic, as well as costly cleanup.

Unfortunately, even with all of this information, California is the only state that strives to coordinate with medical facilities to replace cesium-137 irradiators.

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