Radioactive Ecology

Kathryn Higley

With memories of the Fukushima nuclear disaster still fresh, radioactive pollution can generate strong feelings among members of the public. So when questions arise about health impacts on humans and other organisms, Kathryn Higley can find herself in the media spotlight.

The head of Oregon State University’s Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics specializes in radioecology, the science of radioactivity in the environment. She and her students are studying the transport and effect of radioactive pollutants on vegetation and animals. “Whether it’s natural, human-made, intentional or accidental, the goal is to understand where they go and what the impact is,” she says.

Human health impacts are pretty well-known, but there’s been a shift in philosophy about the environment. “In the past we assumed that if you protect humans, you protect the environment,” but, she notes, that is changing.

“Humans are one of the most radiation-sensitive organisms, but they are not necessarily the most sensitive. We know that pine trees, for example, are about the same in terms of radiation sensitivity. Why that is, we’re not sure. We would expect other mammals to be similarly sensitive.”

While the effects of high radiation exposures are well understood, low doses, particularly for wildlife, are problematic. “There is evidence that animals in the wild are more sensitive to radiation effects than animals examined under laboratory settings. We are developing the tools that will help accurately relate radiation exposure to effect,” Higley says.

Oregon State maintains one of the few radioecology research programs in the country. Higley and her students are exploring topics such as the absorption of radioactivity by plants and the radiation sensitivity of trout, snails and other animals