Radiation woes

How would you respond personally and professionally to the following scenario? It’s 10:15 on a Friday morning in your town USA. A non-descript van pulls up to Fifth and Main. Suicide bombers activate a switch which triggers a blast powered by 5 kilograms of enriched uranium. Buildings become shrapnel, fireballs and ash. Hundreds of thousands of people are dead and dying. The ensuing electromagnetic pulse fries the power grid and cellphones. The mushroom cloud spreads to the suburbs. Roads are jammed as some folks flee and others look for family or seek medical help. A story similar to this originated in the 1950s as part of the Nuclear Planning Scenario 1. It followed a fixed story line with predictions put together ahead of time.

The current system uses advanced computer simulations called agent-based models. These models include digital simulations of every building, thoroughfare, power line, and healthcare facility. In the Washington, D.C. model, a simulated population of 730,000 agents is created to match the real population in terms of age, sex, and occupation. Weather data is included to simulate the fallout plume. Agents are given subroutines that vary among several modes of behavior, such as, panic, flight and search for loved ones. Sound complicated? These models are so big that they can keep 500 microprocessors busy for 36 hours. Real world situations like this don’t give decision-makers 36 hours to determine what to do. Models are pruned so rapid, real-time information can be used by managers to make decisions and take appropriate action. Disaster planning may determine your professional response. In terms of this example, do you know enough about radiation to plan and engage in an appropriate personal response?

We have a love hate relationship with radiation. Roentgen published his X-ray paper in November of 1895. By June of 1896, you could get X-rays of your feet in Lawrence, Kansas. In the early 1900s, radiologists could be identified by their missing digits. The dangers of radium were described in 1902. In 1917, radium was recommended as a tonic, which should be ingested five times a day. Other radium products on the market included: jockstraps, lingerie, butter, milk, toothpaste and cosmetics. When ladies who painted radium on watch dials, using the “lip-dip-paint” method began having their jaw bones rot and poke through their gums, they were likely to be diagnosed with syphilis. Obviously, we are not as radiation-naïve as our ancestors, but the units of measure and descriptors of radiation can be confusing.  A simplified approach is needed.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) developed a “Radiation Hazard Scale”. It is designed to communicate relative hazards to populations under emergency conditions, but does not give exact “radiation exposure parameters for specific individuals”. There are five categories that go from least to greatest radiation exposure dose.

  • Category 1 means that radiation levels are normal, that is, are the result of natural background radiation routinely found in our environment, food, air, water and our bodies.
  • Category 2 means that radiation levels are higher than natural background radiation, but still too low to have adverse health effects.
  • Category 3 occurs when radiation doses are high enough to create an expected risk of cancer. Leukemia and thyroid cancer may develop within five years of exposure, but other radiation-induced malignancies make take decades to occur.
  • Category 4 levels create Acute Radiation Sickness. Early symptoms include nausea, fatigue, diarrhea, hair loss and skin burns.
  • Category 5 is the killer. At extremely high doses people lose consciousness and die within hours.

After an acute radiation exposure, you have a good prognosis if you don’t vomit for 4 hours after exposure; there is no change in serial lymphocyte counts within the first 48 hours; reddened skin is absent in the first 24 hours; and there are no other injuries. Prognosis is poor if you have coma or seizure; reddened skin in the first few hours; vomiting less than an hour after exposure; serial lymphocyte counts drop by more than half in the first 48 hours; bloody vomitus or stool; and, other trauma. Recognizing a category is much easier than thinking of radiation dosages. Remember the plume going to the suburbs in the scenario? Here are some simple recommendations.

What should you do if you think you have radioactive dust on you at home?

1. Remove your clothing to keep radioactive dust from spreading

  • Don’t tear your clothes off or fling them. Remember you don’t want to inhale or swallow dust.
  • Act like your clothes are muddy and you don’t want to dirty (contaminate) your home.
  • Put the clothes in a plastic bag, seal or tie the bag.
  • Place the bag as far away as possible from humans or other animals and put it in something like a sealed plastic box to limit exposure. Obtain information from local authorities regarding permanent disposal.
  • Removing the outer layer of clothing can remove up to 90% of radioactive dust.

2. When possible take a shower with lots of soap and water

  • Do not scrub the skin.
  • Wash your hair with soap and water or shampoo.
  • Don’t use conditioner. It binds radioactive dust to your hair.
  • Blow your nose gently. Think of it as not scrubbing your sinuses.
  • Wipe your eyelids, eyelashes and ears.

3. If you can’t shower, at least wipe off the skin not covered by clothes and put on clean clothing.

Hopefully, this article gives adequate stimulus for you to create and discuss a radiation disaster plan with your family and friends.


  • “Medical Aspects of Radiation Incidents” www.orise.orau.gov/reactsAccessed May 18,2018
  • “Radiation Hazards Scale” https://emergency.cdc.gov/radiation/radiationhazardscale.asp , Accessed January 23, 2018
  • Waldrop, MM, Free Agents. Science, 13 April 2018, Vol 300, Issue 6385, pp. 144-147.
  • Moore K, Radium Girls. Naperville, Illinois, Sourcebooks, 2017.
  • Kevles BH, Naked to the Bone, Reading, Massachusetts, Helix Books, 1997
The information provided in this article is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be considered as all encompassing, or suitable for all situations, conditions, and environments. Please contact us or your attorney if you have any questions.