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Nuclear technology tracks Caribbean pollution

"Everything that humans do leaves an impression somewhere" said Joan Albert Sanchez-Cabeza.
by Staff Writers
Panama (AFP) March 16, 2009
A UN agency is using nuclear material and technologies to study coastal pollution in a dozen Caribbean countries caused mainly by oil refineries, its officials said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is focusing on marine pollution in this project because the sea is vital to the region, accounting for up to 60 percent of the gross domestic products of some countries.

"We are using nuclear techniques to study and improve the environment," said Joan Albert Sanchez-Cabeza, who is responsible for radiometry at the IAEA's marine laboratories in Monaco.

Sanchez-Cabeza said the IAEA is gauging the presence in Caribbean waters of heavy metals like lead, zinc and nickel, as well as pesticides and plaguicides, and studying how it has evolved over time.

Radioactive isotopes like lead 210, cesium 137, or carbon 14 are used to trace those changes in a given place "to see what measures have been taken and what has or has not worked," the Spanish scientist said.

He said they examine sediments because "they are like a book."

"Everything that humans do leaves an impression somewhere -- in lake beds, in the rings of trees, the ice sheets, among others," he said.

He said the project has already established levels of pollution in some areas for the first time, but it will be some months before there are overall results.

"These techniques are helpful to governments because they enable them to see where there have been improvements in terms of environmental pollution and where more needs to be done," said Misael Diaz, a Cuban researcher with the Center of Environmental Studies in Cienfuegos, Cuba.

Diaz is working on the IAEA's most advanced environmental study, in the Bay of Havana.

"To draw conclusions, we need to compare current data with the historic use of this ecosystem," he said.

Jane Gerardo-Abaya, who directs the IAEA program, said people sometimes worry when they hear radioactive materials are being used in the study, but she attributed that to a lack of public information.

"These techniques are valid, very useful and harmless because our mandate is to ensure the peaceful use of atomic energy," she said.

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