Health Physics for your protection.
1947 Oak Ridge National Laboratory poster.

Health physics, also referred to as the science of radiation protection, is the profession devoted to protecting people and their environment from potential radiation hazards, while making it possible to enjoy the beneficial uses of radiation. Health physicists normally require a four-year bachelor’s degree and qualifying experience that demonstrates a professional knowledge of the theory and application of radiation protection principles and closely related sciences. Health physicists principally work at facilities where radionuclides or other sources of ionizing radiation (such as X-ray generators) are used or produced; these include research, industry, education, medical facilities, nuclear power, military, environmental protection, enforcement of government regulations, and decontamination and decommissioning—the combination of education and experience for health physicists depends on the specific field in which the health physicist is engaged.


There are many sub-specialties in the field of health physics,[1] including

Operational health physics

The subfield of operational health physics, also called applied health physics in older sources, focuses on field work and the practical application of health physics knowledge to real-world situations, rather than basic research.[2]

Medical physics

The field of Health Physics is related to the field of medical physics[3] and they are similar to each other in that practitioners rely on much of the same fundamental science (i.e., radiation physics, biology, etc.) in both fields. Health physicists, however, focus on the evaluation and protection of human health from radiation, whereas medical health physicists and medical physicists support the use of radiation and other physics-based technologies by medical practitioners for the diagnosis and treatment of disease.[4]

Radiation protection instruments

Practical ionising radiation measurement is essential for health physics. It enables the evaluation of protection measures, and the assessment of the radiation dose likely, or actually received by individuals. The provision of such instruments is normally controlled by law. In the UK it is the Ionising Radiation Regulations 1999.

The measuring instruments for radiation protection are both "installed" (in a fixed position) and portable (hand-held or transportable).

Installed instruments

Installed instruments are fixed in positions which are known to be important in assessing the general radiation hazard in an area. Examples are installed "area" radiation monitors, Gamma interlock monitors, personnel exit monitors, and airborne contamination monitors.

The area monitor will measure the ambient radiation, usually X-Ray, Gamma or neutrons; these are radiations which can have significant radiation levels over a range in excess of tens of metres from their source, and thereby cover a wide area.

Interlock monitors are used in applications to prevent inadvertent exposure of workers to an excess dose by preventing personnel access to an area when a high radiation level is present.

Airborne contamination monitors measure the concentration of radioactive particles in the atmosphere to guard against radioactive particles being deposited in the lungs of personnel.

Personnel exit monitors are used to monitor workers who are exiting a "contamination controlled" or potentially contaminated area. These can be in the form of hand monitors, clothing frisk probes, or whole body monitors. These monitor the surface of the workers body and clothing to check if any radioactive contamination has been deposited. These generally measure alpha or beta or gamma, or combinations of these.

The UK National Physical Laboratory has published a good practice guide through its Ionising Radiation Metrology Forum concerning the provision of such equipment and the methodology of calculating the alarm levels to be used.[5]

Portable instruments

Portable instruments are hand-held or transportable. The hand-held instrument is generally used as a survey meter to check an object or person in detail, or assess an area where no installed instrumentation exists. They can also be used for personnel exit monitoring or personnel contamination checks in the field. These generally measure alpha, beta or gamma, or combinations of these.

Transportable instruments are generally instruments that would have been permanently installed, but are temporarily placed in an area to provide continuous monitoring where it is likely there will be a hazard. Such instruments are often installed on trolleys to allow easy deployment, and are associated with temporary operational situations.

Instrument types

A number of commonly used detection instruments are listed below.

The links should be followed for a fuller description of each.

Guidance on use

In the United Kingdom the HSE has issued a user guidance note on selecting the correct radiation measurement instrument for the application concerned [2] Archived 2020-03-15 at the Wayback Machine. This covers all ionising radiation instrument technologies, and is a useful comparative guide.

Radiation dosimeters

Dosimeters are devices worn by the user which measure the radiation dose that the user is receiving. Common types of wearable dosimeters for ionizing radiation include:

Units of measure

External dose quantities used in radiation protection and dosimetry
Graphic showing relationship of SI radiation dose units

Absorbed dose

The fundamental units do not take into account the amount of damage done to matter (especially living tissue) by ionizing radiation. This is more closely related to the amount of energy deposited rather than the charge. This is called the absorbed dose.

Equivalent dose

Equal doses of different types or energies of radiation cause different amounts of damage to living tissue. For example, 1 Gy of alpha radiation causes about 20 times as much damage as 1 Gy of X-rays. Therefore, the equivalent dose was defined to give an approximate measure of the biological effect of radiation. It is calculated by multiplying the absorbed dose by a weighting factor WR, which is different for each type of radiation (see table at Relative biological effectiveness#Standardization). This weighting factor is also called the Q (quality factor), or RBE (relative biological effectiveness of the radiation).

For comparison, the average 'background' dose of natural radiation received by a person per day, based on 2000 UNSCEAR estimate, makes BRET 6.6 μSv (660 μrem). However local exposures vary, with the yearly average in the US being around 3.6 mSv (360 mrem),[6] and in a small area in India as high as 30 mSv (3 rem).[7][8] The lethal full-body dose of radiation for a human is around 4–5 Sv (400–500 rem).[9]


In 1898, The Röntgen Society (Currently the British Institute of Radiology) established a committee on X-ray injuries, thus initiating the discipline of radiation protection.[10]

The term "health physics"

According to Paul Frame:[11]

"The term Health Physics is believed to have originated in the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago in 1942, but the exact origin is unknown. The term was possibly coined by Robert Stone or Arthur Compton, since Stone was the head of the Health Division and Arthur Compton was the head of the Metallurgical Laboratory. The first task of the Health Physics Section was to design shielding for reactor CP-1 that Enrico Fermi was constructing, so the original HPs were mostly physicists trying to solve health-related problems. The explanation given by Robert Stone was that '...the term Health Physics has been used on the Plutonium Project to define that field in which physical methods are used to determine the existence of hazards to the health of personnel.'

A variation was given by Raymond Finkle, a Health Division employee during this time frame. 'The coinage at first merely denoted the physics section of the Health Division... the name also served security: 'radiation protection' might arouse unwelcome interest; 'health physics' conveyed nothing.'"

Radiation-related quantities

The following table shows radiation quantities in SI and non-SI units.

Ionizing radiation related quantities
Quantity Unit Symbol Derivation Year SI equivalent
Activity (A) becquerel Bq s−1 1974 SI unit
curie Ci 3.7 × 1010 s−1 1953 3.7×1010 Bq
rutherford Rd 106 s−1 1946 1,000,000 Bq
Exposure (X) coulomb per kilogram C/kg C⋅kg−1 of air 1974 SI unit
röntgen R esu / 0.001293 g of air 1928 2.58 × 10−4 C/kg
Absorbed dose (D) gray Gy J⋅kg−1 1974 SI unit
erg per gram erg/g erg⋅g−1 1950 1.0 × 10−4 Gy
rad rad 100 erg⋅g−1 1953 0.010 Gy
Equivalent dose (H) sievert Sv J⋅kg−1 × WR 1977 SI unit
röntgen equivalent man rem 100 erg⋅g−1 × WR 1971 0.010 Sv
Effective dose (E) sievert Sv J⋅kg−1 × WR × WT 1977 SI unit
röntgen equivalent man rem 100 erg⋅g−1 × WR × WT 1971 0.010 Sv

Although the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission permits the use of the units curie, rad, and rem alongside SI units,[12] the European Union European units of measurement directives required that their use for "public health ... purposes" be phased out by 31 December 1985.[13]

See also


  1. ^ Careers in Health Physics
  2. ^ Miller, Kenneth L. (July 2005). "Operational Health Physics". Health Physics. 88 (6): 638–652. doi:10.1097/01.hp.0000138021.37701.30. PMID 15891458. S2CID 8808841 – via ResearchGate.
  3. ^ "American Association of Physicists in Medicine".
  4. ^ AAPM – The Medical Physicist
  5. ^ Operational Monitoring Good Practice Guide "The Selection of Alarm Levels for Personnel Exit Monitors" Dec 2009 - National Physical Laboratory, Teddington UK [1] Archived 2013-05-13 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ Radioactivity in Nature < Archived 2015-02-05 at the Wayback Machine>
  7. ^ "Background Radiation: Natural versus Man-Made" Archived 2012-05-02 at the Wayback Machine Washington Stet Department of Health
  8. ^ "Monazite sand does not cause excess cancer incidence ", The Hindu
  9. ^ "Lethal dose", NRC Glossary (August 2, 2010)
  10. ^ Mould R. A Century of X-rays and Radioactivity in Medicine. Bristol: IOP Publishing, 1993
  11. ^ Origin of "health physics" Archived 2007-09-27 at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ 10 CFR 20.1004. US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. 2009.
  13. ^ The Council of the European Communities (1979-12-21). "Council Directive 80/181/EEC of 20 December 1979 on the approximation of the laws of the Member States relating to Unit of measurement and on the repeal of Directive 71/354/EEC". Retrieved 19 May 2012.