Dr Peter Marsden – Radiation Protection & Monitoring

University College Hospital in London is a leading centre for research, particularly in imaging. It means that Peter Marsden, its head of radiation physics, has an unusually diverse job. “No two uses of radiation are the same, there’s a wonderful variety at this hospital”.

In addition to what might be called by the public, ‘normal’ use of radiation in X rays and radiotherapy treatments for cancer, X rays, are increasingly used outside X ray departments in areas such as cardiology, where CT scans (which involve X rays) are used to provide stunningly detailed images of the heart. Peter’s team checks the intensity of X rays and of X ray equipment throughout the hospital, to make sure that it is safe and performing as the manufacturer intended. They also collate around 3,000 results a month from the film badges work by staff who might be exposed to radiation.

Sometimes those involved in radiation protection are seen as the people who say ‘no’. As far as Peter is concerned, his job is to find out what clinicians want to achieve and then try to help them acheive it safely. But there are many challenges in radiation protection. For instance, what advice should be given to the parents of young children being treated with radioactive isotopes about contact with them? “I have to put risks in perspective” he says.

Peter’s most difficult challenge came in November 2006 when Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian dissident, was admitted having been poisoned with radioactive Polonium 210. He died three weeks later. It was a very different type of radiation from that normally seen in the hospital and although the principles behind it were known, Peter’s team had to rush out and borrow new equipment to test for it. A great many people were involved in Litvinenko’s care and naturally many had serious concerns that their health would be affected. Peter had to repeatedly provide reassurrance for staff members. The challenges did not end with Litvinenko’s death as concerns remained as to how to dispose of items like linen, which he had used. Huge variety indeed.



Profile courtesy of Chief Scientific Officer, Department of Health – Professor Sue Hill