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What's the Problem?

Radiation, a form of energy, is all around us, produced by the earth and even by our own bodies. It exists in both natural and man-made forms and has many beneficial uses, including x-rays and the generation of electrical power. However, exposure to high levels of radiation may be harmful to both humans and the environment. Exposure to radiation can cause cancer as well as other adverse health effects, including (in extreme cases) acute radiation syndrome or mental retardation in children who were exposed in the womb.

Who's at Risk?

Anyone exposed to large doses of radiation or to smaller doses over an extended period of time is at risk. Exposure to extremely large doses of external radiation may cause death within a few days or months. External exposure to lower doses of radiation and internal exposure from breathing or eating radioactive contaminated material may lead to an increased risk of developing cancer. Because children are growing more rapidly, there are more cells dividing and a greater opportunity for radiation to disrupt the process. Fetuses are also more sensitive to radiation. However, the period during which they may be exposed and be harmed is short.

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In the event of a nuclear detonation, bodily injury or death may occur as a result of the blast itself or as a result of debris thrown from the blast. People may experience moderate to severe skin burns, depending on their distance from the blast site. Those who look directly at the blast could experience eye damage ranging from temporary blindness to severe retinal burns.

What Could Happen?

Possible scenarios for a radiological terrorist event range from introducing radioactive material into the food or water, to using conventional weapons to widely disperse radioactive materials, to destroying a nuclear facility or detonating a small nuclear device. While introducing radioactive material into the food or water would likely cause great psychological effects, it would not likely cause extensive contamination or danger of adverse health effects. A dirty bomb could cause mass casualties from the conventional weapon, but would not likely be sufficient to cause acute radiation syndrome among many people; however, people who were exposed to dispersed radiation could face an increased risk of developing cancer later in life. A major event at or near a nuclear facility could release a large quantity of radioactive material. Persons at the facility would likely be contaminated with radioactive material and possibly injured from a blast. Some may even receive a large enough dose to develop acute radiation syndrome. Persons in the surrounding area could be contaminated or exposed. Clearly, detonation of a small nuclear device could result in physical devastation with many people being contaminated and injured from the blast, including many people who likely would have symptoms of acute radiation syndrome. After detonation of a nuclear bomb, radioactive fallout would extend over a large region far from ground zero with potential for increasing the incidence of cancer in the population over time.

Can Health Effects from Radiation Be Prevented?

Routine exposure to radiation can be limited by monitoring the number of medical x-rays per year and by limiting exposure to the sun. In the event of a terrorist nuclear attack, a national emergency-response plan would be activated and would include federal, state, and local agencies. Local authorities will issue public health and safety statements advising precautions to take to avoid potential exposure to radiation. Until the amount of contamination is determined, the following precautionary measures are recommended to minimize risk:

  • Remain inside and avoid opening doors and windows;
  • keep children and pets indoors;
  • turn off fans, air conditioners, and forced air heating units that bring in fresh air from the outside. Use them only to recirculate air already in the building;
  • go to the nearest building if you are outside. If you must go outside for critical or lifesaving activities, cover your nose and mouth and avoid stirring up and breathing any dust. Remember that your going outside could increase your exposure and possibly spread contamination to others;
  • be aware that trained monitoring teams will be moving through the area wearing special protective clothing and equipment to determine the extent of possible contamination. These teams will wear protective gear as a precaution and not as an indication of the risks to those indoors; and
  • avoid eating fruits and vegetables grown in the area until their safety is determined.

The Bottom Line

  • Exposure to large amounts of radiation, especially over a short period of time, can result in serious health effects;
  • although a terrorist event involving a dirty bomb or contamination of food or water resources would cause great public alarm, the exposure to radiation would likely be minimal and not physically harmful;
  • acute radiation syndrome, similar to the effects experienced by survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, could occur in some people following a terrorist attack that involved detonation of a nuclear bomb;
  • the immediate symptoms of ARS are nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea; later effects include bone marrow depletion, flu-like symptoms, infection, and bleeding;
  • children may be more susceptible than adults to the effects of radiation; and
  • fetuses are extremely sensitive to radiation.

Case Example

There has been a crash in a small town in northern California — a tractor-trailer and a train collide in the early hours of the morning. The truck is destroyed, and its contents are spewed across the surrounding area. By dawn, an emergency alert is sounded. People are told to remain in their homes with the doors and windows closed. Schools are closed. A hazardous materials (haz-mat) team has arrived in town to clean up the accident site. The truck was carrying spent radioactive waste to a dump site when the accident occurred. A public health official appears on television explaining what happened, areas that are restricted for entry, precautions such as sheltering or evacuation, and who to contact if people have specific concerns about health effects.

  • Page last reviewed: September 15, 2017
  • Page last updated: September 15, 2017
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