Nuclear Power's Role In Disease Prevention
Research and Innovations Cobalt-60 is a radioactive isotope that plays an important role in health care through the sterilization of single-use medical devices and combating the Zika virus.
any Canadians view nuclear power as a clean and dependable source of electricity for their homes and workplaces. What is less well-known is the critical role nuclear energy plays in promoting the health and safety of millions of people across the globe. Nuclear reactors, such as those at Ontario’s Bruce Power, can produce a medical-grade radioactive isotope called Cobalt-60. This important isotope is carefully harvested and used in an array of applications around the world, including hospital equipment sterilization, cancer treatment, food irradiation, and disease prevention.
Sterilization of medical devices
“The biggest use of Cobalt-60 is for the sterilization of single-use medical devices,” says Emily Craven, Marketing Manager of Gamma Technologies at Nordion, a health science company. “Things like bandages, syringes, IV bags and basically any items that are used once and then thrown away need to be sterilized, and more than roughly 40 percent of all of the world’s single-use medical devices are sterilized using Cobalt-60.”
The proper sterilization of medical equipment is essential in stemming the spread of infection and disease in doctors’ offices, hospitals, and medical facilities. Dr. Sanjay Acharya, a doctor at the Queensway Carleton Hospital, emphasizes Cobalt-60’s value to the health care system. “Medicine in 2016 is impossible absent the nuclear industry… Without this sterilization method, our ability to ensure patient safety would be severely compromised. Modern operating rooms, intensive care units, and hospital wards could not function on a fundamental level without the nuclear industry. There is no easy substitute for this technology. It is the safest and most reliable way to provide the sterility in medicine that is needed.”
Thanks to its unparalleled germ-killing capabilities, Cobalt-60, which is also a vital component in radiation-based cancer treatments, is an integral feature of quality health care systems worldwide.
Safe food and sterile pests
Another way in which Cobalt-60 helps saves lives is in food irradiation. “It is used in food safety to reduce harmful bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella in things like spices in Canada, and in other parts of the world it can also be used for meat and produce,” explains Craven.
The isotope also aids in fighting infectious diseases, such as the Zika virus, through its use in insect sterilization.
Craven notes that the isotope is a significant contributor to a pest-fighting method called sterile insect technique. “Basically, what you do is give live insect pupae a very small dose of radiation. It’s a small enough dose that the insects are still viable but they can’t reproduce. Then you release these sterile males into the wild, so they mate with the wild females but they won’t produce any offspring. This has been an incredibly effective factor in insect population control…which is now being used with mosquitoes to fight the Zika virus.”
It’s perhaps fitting that the same nuclear energy that helps power our cities and homes also helps empower our health care system to perform at its peak.