Shostack + Friends Blog Archive



How’d you like to be the person at British Airways who has to write the letter to 30,000 people explaining that they might have been exposed to a radioactive poison while traveling on BA flights?
Remarkably, authorities will not confirm that the substance detected was Polonium, yet passengers on the flights are being asked to talk to their doctors. About what? The general risks of ionizing radiation? No need for that, since BA helpfully has that information right on its web pages.
I know little about such things, since the only physics lab I studied in had a telescope as its main instrument, but if I am going to ask my doctor how much I need to worry, she’s going to want to know what kind of radiation I was exposed to, and for how long. I don’t see that information as being available, so it seems as though asking the passengers to speak to their doctors is really asking doctors to giver their patients a pat on the head.
Meanwhile, the contrast between the official reaction to this incident, which I would describe as quite measured, and the reaction to the “chemical explosive threat” could hardly be more stark.

8 comments on "Radiation"

  • Adam says:

    Wow, I can see the conversation going well in the US
    “So you want a referal to a specialist in radiation?”
    “That’s right!”
    “And this ‘British airways,’ are they physicians?”
    “no, its an airline.”
    “So they’re not medical experts? In that case, I’m going to have to deny your request.”

  • SteveC says:

    But, given that in the UK we have public health care it makes the NHS an arm of the government. Other arms being the security services, the police and the Health Protection Agency which is examining the aircraft. So it’s more than likely that anyone with a serious worry would be referred to someone who knew more than the public. In addition, everyone is invited to contact NHS Direct which is a national free health advice service provided over the phone. And all the people at NHS Direct have been trained to deal with this.

  • Jim C says:

    You could start by explaining how little true risk there actually is. They had more risk in flight from a accidental crash than from the “radioactive poison”. More risk boarding the palne than in a plane crash. More risk driving to the airport than any of these and far more risk swimming in their pool at home than all of those put together.
    Oh yea you might want to tell them that the risk is similar as if they take apart their smoke detector.
    People hear radioactive and loose all proportion. What you don’t understand you fear.

  • Meanwhile, the contrast between the official reaction to this incident, which I would describe as quite measured, and the reaction to the “chemical explosive threat” could hardly be more stark.
    While I despise the theory and practice of TSA as much as anyone, I think the muted *aviation* reaction is quite rational: the threat models of old-school cloak-and-dagger assassination are understood and have a small footprint. The same cannot be said of terrorist threats, which may have a very low effective probability, but could be seen to apply to a much wider range of threats.
    As to whether the diplomatic response to a Russian political assassination was rational, in light of geopolitics, requires a great deal more Waltz than I am prepared to reference without Scotch handy.

  • Adam says:

    BA does not require that their customers be British. I’ve flown them in the last 6 months, and my first response would be to call my doctor if I was worried.

  • Chris says:

    NHS Direct spokesman Simone Lester said that only passengers who felt unwell should call.
    “We will not be in a position to give them more specific advice until the Health Protection Agency has finished its assessment of the potential risk on those flights,” she said.

  • Jim C says:

    Now that I have downplayed the whole thing…
    I was working on the assumption that this was related to the Russian assasination. Unless they were complete idiots and the transport guy is currently dying in an undisclosed location there is almost no risk.
    Another possibility is that someone was just spreading contamination intentionally or not. If that is the case then this could be far more problematic.
    I fly (well Flew not much flying in my new job yea!!!) BA quite a bit. Love their business class.

  • SteveC says:

    Good point! Conceded 🙂

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