The man with the Geiger counter

Radiation safety officer keeps Binghamton “clean”

Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.
Photography: Jonathan Cohen.

In 1986, James Brownridge was investigating methods of monitoring radiation in the environment when his work took on an ominous urgency: The Chernobyl nuclear power plant, in what is now Ukraine, suffered a catastrophic failure and released massive amounts of radioactive material into the Soviet Union and Europe. Then, Brownridge discovered, it even reached Binghamton. He detected it in stemflows (i.e., water running down tree trunks) outside his home.

“We were able to document that it arrived here and what radioactive isotopes were in the clouds. We had water collectors out, and it was just serendipitous that I was investigating radiation,” he says.

Radiation is Brownridge’s specialty; it has been for over 50 years. Since 1966, his job has been to make sure that Binghamton University follows all federal and state regulations with respect to X-ray-producing equipment and radioactive material.

Like being a fireman

When a Binghamton faculty member wants to use radioactive material, the request is evaluated by the Radiation Safety Committee, a team of faculty and staff charged with making sure that all regulations are followed.

Once approved, Brownridge meets with the person and explains how to handle the materials. He hosts large training sessions in the fall and smaller ones throughout the academic year.

Susan Bane, professor of organic and biological chemistry, heads the Radiation Safety Committee; Brownridge has trained her students since 1985. She says he makes sure that everyone has a healthy respect for radiation. “I think he has a really nice balance of explaining things to lots of different levels of people about what’s important, what they need to do, why they need to do it, why it’s important to follow the regulations and why it’s important to be respectful, but not afraid, of radioactivity,” Bane says.

Once materials are in place, Brownridge inspects the facilities. Carrying a Geiger counter, he checks the labs, looking for radiation levels that exceed the norm. He wipes doorknobs, the floor, telephones, anything, looking for contamination.

“Being a radiation safety officer is somewhat like being a fireman,” Brownridge says. “You wait for something to happen. You train, but you sit there in the firehouse and you wait for the bell to go off, and then you go to work. If the bell goes off, I get my jacket and go do whatever it is I need to do.”

So far, it’s worked. In the 50-plus years that Brownridge has worked at the University, there has not been one dangerous incident involving radioactive material.

“We have been quite successful in maintaining a clean working environment,” he says, modestly.

But Brownridge’s contributions to Binghamton extend beyond training. When the University needed to dispose of a cobalt source that dated back to the 1970s, he found out that there was a program related to homeland security that would dispose of the source, free of charge. It would have cost the University $40,000 to hire a company to take it away.

“Jim quietly solves problems behind the scenes. He’s very proactive on things,” Bane says. “Anything that has to do with radioactivity, people can get totally freaked out about. Jim anticipates things before they happen.”

On the road to Binghamton

How does a career in radiation safety begin? For Brownridge, it was simply about being in the right place at the right time. When he was graduating from college, the U.S. government was training college professors and students, en masse, how to use radioactive materials. Brownridge seized the opportunity — he got a crash course in radiation safety and took two-week trips across the country, training faculty, staff and students at colleges and universities.

“We had a mobile laboratory that I drove, an 18-wheeler. We would park near the science building, plug into the AC and offer a 10-day course with lectures and labs. I was the lab instructor,” Brownridge says.

After a successful stop at Harpur College, he was offered the position of radiation safety officer, which he accepted. When he arrived on campus, “the steel frames were still up” for Science 2, where his office would eventually be located.

A lot has changed since 1966, Brownridge says. The biggest changes are the growth and the number of programs.

“My work went up with the growth,” he says. “We’re in a tremendous growth period right now.”

Staff scientist

When Brownridge isn’t teaching the Binghamton campus community how to safely handle radioactive material, he conducts research at home and in his campus lab. He says it’s uncommon to find a staff member in his position with published academic papers; people often mistakenly refer to him as Dr. Brownridge.

“I’ve had enormous support from the University to conduct research and collect equipment that’s not being used, [to] restore equipment and build equipment,” Brownridge says. “Generally, it’s revamping equipment and working on problems that are long-term. Some of these projects take well over 10 years.”

Brownridge has published dozens of papers and has been invited to speak all around the globe; he’s discussed the behavior of water in Bulgaria. Engineers from NASA have interacted with him regarding his research. In 2003, he co-developed an electrical X-ray generator that won an R&D 100 award, which highlights the 100 most-significant technologies introduced to market that year.

“As the result of the University making it conducive for staff members to go as far as they’re willing to go, the results are bringing some worldwide attention to Binghamton,” Brownridge says.

He credits his research achievements to a lifelong love for science (he had a “lab” as a child) and unrelenting persistence. It also helps to listen to nature, he says.

“For years, I’ve had the attitude that nature’s always trying to tell us something. Most of the time, we don’t listen,” Brownridge says. “Most of my observations or ‘discoveries’ in the lab have been when something went wrong. You lay out an experiment and it should be working, and all of a sudden something goes wrong. That’s the key — go back, look at it, see what happened. Then bang!”

Brownridge is looking at trees, as he was when he detected the Chernobyl radiation in 1986. Only now, he is looking at how trees respond to temperature changes and weather conditions. His home lab runs 24/7.

“Even after I retire, I plan to continue research with my home lab. It’s a hobby, and I’m fortunate enough that most of my work is my hobby,” Brownridge says. “The two overlap, and I’m content. I’m very fortunate to be in what is probably a unique position, and that’s probably why I’ve been around 50 years.”

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