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Radiation Emergencies

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. Radiation emergencies can range from isolated occupational or medical overexposures to major catastrophes with global implications.1 Exposure to high levels of radiation may be harmful to both humans and the environment. Exposure to large amounts of 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. Children are more susceptible to effects of radiation because they are growing more rapidly and more of their cells are dividing. Thus, there is 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?

Radiation emergencies may be intentional (e.g. caused by terrorists) or unintentional.

Intentional Radiation Emergencies (Radiological Terrorist Events)

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.

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.

Unintentional Radiation Emergencies

Nuclear Power Plant Accidents

Nuclear power plants have many safety and security procedures in place and are closely monitored by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). 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.

Transportation Accidents

Radioactive material is transported by trucks, rail, and other shipping methods.  Shipments involving significant amounts of radioactive material are required to have documentation, labels, and placards identifying the cargo as radioactive. The main dangers of transportation accidents involving radiation are contact with and exposure to radioactive material. It is very unlikely a transportation accident involving radiation would result in any radiation-related injuries or illnesses.

Occupational Accidents

Radiation sources are found in a wide range of settings such as health care facilities, research institutions, and manufacturing operations. Accidents can occur if the radiation source is used improperly, or if safety controls fail.

Can Health Effects Radiation Be Prevented?

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.

In the event of a radiation emergency, until the amount of contamination is determined, the following precautionary measures are recommended to minimize risk:

Get Inside: Get inside the nearest building and keep children and pets indoors. Avoid going outside except for critical or lifesaving activities. If you have loved ones in schools, daycares, hospitals, nursing homes or other places during a radiation emergency, stay where you are.  Going outside could increase your exposure and possibly spread contamination to others.

Stay Inside: Remain inside and avoid opening doors and windows. Do not use fans, air conditioners or forced air heating units that bring fresh air from the outside.  Take a shower or wipe any exposed parts of your body with a damp cloth.  Only consume foods and beverages in sealed-containers.  Food from your garden should not be consumed until emergency officials determine it is safe to do so.

Stay Tuned: Stay alert with a battery-powered or hand crank emergency radio.  Making phone calls could be hard, so try to use text messages (SMS) as a form of contact.  If you have a computer or web-enabled device that works, use email and social media websites (e.g. CDC Emergency on Facebook and Twitter); Emergency officials will provide information on where to go to get screened for contamination.

The Bottom Line

  • Not all radiation is bad for you and most exposure will not result in cancer or other negative health effects. However, exposure to large amounts of radiation, especially over a short period of time, can result in serious health effects;
  • In the event of a radiation emergency, Get Inside, Stay Inside, Stay Tuned;
  • 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 (ARS), similar to the effects experienced by survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, could occur in potentially large numbers of people following a terrorist attack that involved detonation of a nuclear bomb;
  • Children may be more susceptible than adults to the effects of radiation; and
  • Fetuses are extremely sensitive to radiation, especially early in the pregnancy.

Case Examples

Transportation Radiation Accident

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 dumpsite 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.

Nuclear Weapon Detonation

An improvised nuclear device (IND) detonates in a small town in Oklahoma, releasing radiation, intense light, heat, and a blast wave.  The explosion results in mass casualties and creates a mushroom-shaped cloud that settles on the small town as fallout.  First responders notify authorities and an incident perimeter is determined to ensure initial boundaries of radiation spread are set. The city government building has been destroyed.  An incident command system is setup in an adjacent town as well as in adjacent hospitals.   Incident managers protect the public and responders from future radiation exposure, implementing protective action guidelines, telling individuals to get inside to the center or basement of a building, staying inside that building, and staying tuned to updates.  Before managing radiation problems, first responders and clinicians take part in the triage, treatment and transport of victims.   While individuals are being treated and transported, professionals wear personal protective equipment (PPE) and bring dosimeters, measuring levels of radiation and determining radiation types and isotopes.   Professionals then determine the damage zones resulting from the nuclear detonation and where appropriate response can take place moving forward.  


1. WHO Ionizing Radiation

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