What is NORM?
NORM refers to a certain number of radioactive materials (also called "isotopes") that occur in the Earth's crust naturally and are natural decay products of uranium, thorium, radium, and potassium. Some of these isotopes are Radon-222, Radium-226, and Potassium-40, as a rule found in low concentrations in the Earth's crust.
Why should I care about NORM?
Radiation is all around us. It is not only a fact of life but also necessary for human life to exist. Still, like with most things, one's NORM exposure should be in moderation, and abnormally high levels of NORM exposure can pose serious human health risks, especially lung cancer, since the ionizing radiation that NORM emits is a known carcinogen (i.e. a substance capable of causing cancer in living tissue).
How does NORM affect my everyday life?
As a rule, NORM affects humans by coming to the Earth's surface through natural processes (ex. radon gas traversing through fissures in rocks or dissolving and being transported by ground water) or by way of human activities (fossil-fuel extraction, mining, etc.). Either way, you will come in contact with radon, so what's important is to keep NORM levels at acceptable low levels in areas where you spend the bulk of your time, over long periods of time, such as at home or work.
Where does abnormally high NORM exposure commonly occur?
Geographically speaking, South Africa has higher than average NORM exposure in places such as the Karoo Basin and Western Cape, to name a few. Regardless of geography, however, there are certain industries where NORM levels tend to come in higher concentrations, thus posing a greater amount of exposure (see TENORM):
Oil and gas
NORM tends to become concentrated during the extraction and production process, scales/films containing NORM can form on isolated fossil-fuel infrastructure, such as inside pipes, and both sludge and equipment can become contaminated with NORM.
The extraction and processing of mineral ores release and/or concentrate NORM.
A by-product of burning coal, whether to produce electricity or anything else, is the generation of coal ash, which has higher concentrations of NORM in it than the coal that was originally mined from the ground. Coal ash in South Africa is often used to make other products, such as concrete and wallboard, thus increasing the NORM exposure levels of these products.
Water treatment facilities
Water, whether fresh or waste, may contain radon gas that is released from the water when treated or used.
Other NORM-intensive industries:
Phosphate fertilizers; forest products; tunneling and underground workings; metal recycling; waste management.
How is NORM regulated?
Unfortunately, besides for the mining sector, South Africa is yet to join the group of countries (USA, Canada, etc.) that regulate NORM (ex. at the provincial, state, national, or territorial levels) to protect the greater population from the adverse effects of exposure to abnormal levels of NORM. CareTac is an advocate for instituting science-based NORM regulations that allow the public to understand that while radiation is essential to human life, it is critical to test for, mitigate, and manage one's exposure to abnormal levels of it.
How is NORM detected?
Natural background radiation comes from the the ground, building materials, air, food, and cosmic rays. Levels of this type of radiation can vary depending on where you live. If radiation readings come in above typical background levels, then this may indicate that NORM is present. Using a process referred to as "characterization", NORM professionals look to identify the type of material being dealt in order to understand whether any precautionary measures need to be taken to with it. CareTac's personnel and partners are trained radiation safety experts and consultants qualified to conduct the necessary radiation surveys to determine whether a material is NORM or a man-made radioactive material.
How should NORM be handled?
Safe handling of NORM is crucial with high concentrations, which usually a result of the material having been processed, often referred to as technologically enhanced NORM, or TENORM.
Only trained radiation safety experts and hazardous industrial safety substances experts should handle NORM, given that certain safety measures may be needed to protect workers who work with NORM-contaminated equipment and NORM waste.
NORM best practices for individuals and businesses:
Ensure that staff is properly trained and knows the procedures for dealing with NORM
Refrain from eating, drinking, or smoking where NORM could be present
Discard NORM-contaminated materials efficiently to keep from stockpiling them
Minimize time spent in NORM-contaminated work and storage areas
Minimize operations that could generate NORM-containing dust (ex. cutting, polishing, and grinding)
Maximize the distance from NORM sources when handling and/or storing them
Minimize dose rates with appropriate shielding
Keep NORM-contaminated materials and waste in designated areas with access only for authorized personnel.
Other precautionary measures:
Decontaminate NORM-exposed equipment before disposal. Use personal protective equipment (non-porous coveralls, boots and gloves, and protective eyewear and respirators
Ensure pipes are sealed and ground covers are used to prevent environmental contamination
Keep NORM materials damp with water to prevent dust inhalation
Check workers for NORM-contamination before leaving work area
Use high pressure washing or high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter vacuuming to evaluate and decontaminate potentially NORM-contaminated areas