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Enhancing Capacity to Assess Environmental Radioactivity in Africa through IAEA Training on Sample Collection and Pre-Treatment

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Participants collecting sediment core samples at a mud flat in seagrass area in Diani south coast of Kenya. (Photo: D.C. Louw/IAEA)

Both the marine and terrestrial environments in many African countries have been impacted by contamination from diverse anthropogenic activities such as mining, industrialization, shipping, and offshore oil and gas exploration. All these activities can potentially introduce radionuclides into the environment. By establishing appropriate environmental radioactivity monitoring programmes, these countries can begin to reliably monitor the pollution that can arise from these activities.

To help address this challenge, the IAEA supported a regional 10-day training course in late February 2020 on the Marine and Terrestrial Sampling and Pre-treatment of Samples for Radioactivity Measurements held in Kenya at three coastal locations: Mombasa, Ukunda and Malindi. Through this field training, the IAEA trained scientists and technical staff from selected African countries that recently established, or are in the process of establishing, their national environmental radioactivity monitoring programs: Angola, Burkina Faso, Chad, Congo, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Ghana, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

This hands-on field and laboratory-based training equipped the participants and technical professionals with knowledge how to correctly collect and pre-treat environmental samples for measurement of radioactivity. Radioanalytical laboratories are still scarce in Africa; about one laboratory per country on average addresses environmental radioactivity concerns today. Therefore, collaboration between laboratories is crucial to improve and sustain capacity for reliable environmental radioactivity monitoring through knowledge sharing and networking.

“Zambia is a landlocked country with many freshwater rivers and lakes. However, the country’s economy relies heavily on mining and both old and new mines are a potential steady source of radioactive waste,” said Phillimon Shaba from the National Institute for Scientific and Industrial Research in Zambia. “If not managed properly, this contamination can have a drastic effect on our precious environmental resources and public health.”

Coastal environments are particularly vulnerable to radiochemical contamination. Harbors, for example, with their slow-moving waters and high rates of sedimentation, can act as sinks for radiological and toxic contamination. Contaminants can also be carried to the coastal environment by rivers, which often deposit their sediment along the coastline.

“There is limited capacity in this region to measure and monitor radionuclides in the marine,  coastal and terrestrial environment. Through building the capacity in these skills, it will be possible to produce reliable quality data to help protect local populations that heavily depend on agriculture and seafood,” said Martina Rozmaric, Research Scientist and Quality Manager at IAEA Radiometrics Laboratory in Monaco.

To adequately conduct marine pollution studies using nuclear techniques, local technicians must be able to perform appropriate sampling and preparation techniques for radioactivity measurements.

“Every good analytical result begins with getting the sampling process right,” said Oscar Adukpo from the Radiation Protection Institute, Ghana Atomic Energy Commission. “I firmly believe now that we can avoid petty mistakes in sampling and samples preparations that may have been made prior to the use of analytical devices for measurement, as these training hands-on exercises demonstrate.”

There is limited capacity in this region to measure and monitor radionuclides in the marine, coastal and terrestrial environment. Through building the capacity in these skills, it will be possible to produce reliable quality data to help protect local populations that heavily depend on agriculture and seafood.
Martina Rozmaric, Research Scientist and Quality Manager, IAEA Radiometrics Laboratory, Monaco

Experts from selected African radioanalytical laboratories enroute to collect sediments, biota and leave samples at Makongeni mangroves in Diani south coast of Kenya. (Photo: D.C. Louw/IAEA)

Over a two-week period, 23 technical staff from radioanalytical laboratories in 19 African countries collected a number of seawater, marine sediment, terrestrial soil, biota, and seaweed samples from different locations in Kenya, including the coastal waters near Mombasa, mangroves near Diani Beach in the south, and rivers, flood plains and terrestrial environments near a manganese mine near Malindi. Trainees learned how to correctly sample, handle and pre-treat water, biota and sediment samples in the laboratory prior to any further radioactivity measurements.

“Implementing a field and lab-based course for environmental radioactivity such as this IAEA training brings together representatives from different African countries that want to learn reliable sampling and sample preparation techniques,” said Eric Okuku, Center Director of Kenya Marine and Fisheries Institute, Mombasa.

Correct sampling and sample preparation is the basis for the reliable data, which decision makers need to sustainably manage their environment. Participants were trained how to do appropriate sampling and sample preparation according to International Standardization Organization (ISO) requirements and guidance in a recent IAEA publication: Guidelines on Soil and Vegetation Sampling for Radiological Monitoring.

“Currently, we are in the process of setting up a national laboratory in our institute and establishing sampling procedures,” said Guy Blanchard Dallou, National Institute of Research in Exact and Natural Science, Congo. “It is vital to experience a hands-on training to better understand the necessary strategies for the establishment of environmental radioactivity monitoring programmes, and the methodologies and resources needed for sampling activities at the radioanalytical laboratory,”

Organized through Technical Cooperation project on Promoting Technical Cooperation among the Radio-Analytical Laboratories for the Measurement of Environmental Radioactivity (RAF7017), efforts will continue to strengthen laboratories’ capacities to generate quality and reliable information on radioactivity levels in all types of environmental materials and food products.

Hands-on experience in the pre-concentration of natural and artificial radionuclides from seawater samples at the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Institute in Mombasa. (Photo: KMFRI)

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