Chill out, it’s only ionizing radiation

radioactive_symbolRecommended from the Comments — straight talk about soi-disant Dirty Bombs.

Recently we read a novel that climaxed as the heroes tried to stop a hostile force from using a radioactive weapon in an American City (think it was NYFC). And the radiation from this thing… had flesh falling off their bones in minutes as they tried to set it up, and then it set the building on fire.

With its radiation, you see.

There are novelists who do research, and then… there was that guy.

Anyway, Larry Grimm, who comments here from time to time, is a health physicist. We think it’s fair to say he’s learned more about the physiology of ionizing radiation than we have, and we know we know it better than that novelist fellow. Here’s a repost of a Q&A with Larry from seven years ago.

Q: What is the biggest concern from a radiological dispersion device?
A: Two things: the irrational fear it can induce and the expense of cleanup. The possibility of the radiation actually hurting anyone is quite small. We fear what we do not understand, sometimes irrationally. The concepts of radiation are poorly taught in high school, and the only other radiation information we get has been sensationalized by Hollywood, politicians, and those looking to make a buck off of our lack of education. You can beat the fear by learning how radiation works and how to manage it safely (protection techniques). Fear and panic kill people, as any good Marine knows. Radioactive materials are chemicals. Sometimes it is easy to clean them up, sometimes hard. For example, cleaning oil off concrete is hard, but picking up chunks of metal is easy. Fortunately, it only takes a radiation detector to find the radioactive material, so it is easier to find and clean up than a non-radioactive chemical. Likely, the biggest problem will be economic disruption while cleanup takes place. Radiation dispersion devices are really disruption, not destruction, weapons.

Q: What steps should I take if a radiological dirty bomb goes off in the area?

A: There are four simple protection techniques: Contamination control, distance, shielding and time. Contamination control and distance are the most useful techniques in a bomb situation.

Remember to help others first. Radioactive materials are rarely immediately life threatening. The worst-case terrorism scenarios indicate that there would not be enough radioactive material to cause immediate harm. Did you ever feel anything or see an effect from getting an X-ray? In 99.999% of radiation exposures, no effect is felt or seen. If I went towards the blast area to help someone, I would not fear the radiation. However, I would be cautious and respectful of the radiation. Therefore, I would use the following techniques no matter if I was escaping the area, trapped in the area, or going in to help.

Contamination control: Keep the radioactive chemical off and out of your body. Button up clothing and wear a mask (or anything to cover nose and mouth.) A radioactive material is always a chemical, which behaves like the chemical wants to behave. The distance technique is the best protector in a dirty bomb scenario. However, if I need to be near the source, or if I am downwind of the blast, I will first practice contamination control. If I suspect that I swallowed or inhaled the chemical, but do not feel ill, I would later seek professional help. Radiation effects take a long time to show up, and I wouldn’t want to add to the congestion at the hospital. However, there could be a nasty chemical associated with a radioactive bomb, so if I felt even slightly ill, I would seek medical help in a hurry.

Distance: In even the worst bomb scenario, you would be safe from the radiation if you get just a couple blocks away and get upwind of potential airborne material. Think of it as standing next to a campfire – get too close to the heat radiation, and it could burn you, but if far enough away, you do not get any heat. Exactly like a campfire, you do not want to be in the smoke, so get upwind. The most likely radioactive material in a dirty bomb would be Cobalt or Cesium. If the terrorist could somehow manage to get 10,000 Curies in the bomb, you only need to be about 300 yards (three football fields) away to be safe from the radiation. If you are not downwind or near the dispersion area, you are safe. Do not “head for the hills”. Leave the roadways open so emergency responders can get through.

Shielding: Anything acts as a shield – a building, a car, a hill, et cetera. Your major concern is gamma radiation. Imagine the gamma as a radio wave. When don’t you get a radio signal? When you are in the middle of a building, in a basement, behind a hill, et cetera. Whatever shielding decreases a radio signal will decrease gamma rays. I handled 12 million curies of Cesium (a 1000 times more than a possible bomb) with a mere 20 feet of water for shielding, and I got no dose!

Time: The less you are around the radiation, the less dose you will get. As most people would use distance, and get away in a hurry, they already used the time technique by not hanging around the radiation. Emergency responders may need to use this technique, and all across the US, they are receiving training on how to use it.


Emphasis was Larry’s, but we concur about 10 thousand percent. Do Read The Whole Thing™, as there’s a lot more sense in there, and it’s a bugle in a wilderness of nonsense.

For what it’s worth, we’re not ready to die, but we live about six or seven miles from a known nuclear target. We understand that Risk = Probability X Severity. Assuming a hit on the target, and a typical strat warhead, Severity is less than you’d think; and Probability is one of those things that really rounds to zero, especially when you figure the CEP of the bomb and the fact that it has only perhaps a 1 in 4 chance of its error from baseline bringing it closer to the Manor.

We used to live just about in the shadow of a coastal nuclear power plant. (Actually, we’ve lived near a few of them over the years). But you know, decades after the nuclear age was rung in, there are still more deaders from riding with Senator Kennedy, or falling off the high-wire, or being hit by a falling Concorde, than from nuclear power plants.

Does radiation need respect? Yes. Does it need fear? No. More of the people reading this are going to die from bad choices with respect to diet and exercise than just about anything else. We take a lot bigger risk when saddling up the bicycle (with or without a helmet, latest stats seem to say it’s about a wash) than we do living near strat nuke targets, or nuclear power plants.

Can you die from radiation? Hell, yes. Rare but it happens, like when uneducated people go fooling with abandoned radiomedical equipment, in this case in Brazil (.pdf) in 1985. But even most of the exposed people in that case lived. Unfortunately, an awful lot of people were subjected to nuclear war terror propaganda back in the 50s through the 80s, and now have a completely unrealistic idea of what radiation does.

Like make your skin fall straight off, and set you on fire.


11 thoughts on “Chill out, it’s only ionizing radiation

  1. aGrimm

    Oh my goodness, I am honored that you put this up. For years and years I did hundreds of public presentations on radiation and its effects with the hope to relieve peoples’ fears. To get this kind of exposure is delightful.

    When I first got into health physics I was imbued with the “radiation is a killer” mentality. However, the more I studied, the less sense this made to me at the low end of radiation exposure. With literally thousands of studies showing beneficial effects at the low end, I fairly quickly came to the conclusion that there was a lot of scaremongering going on that played on ignorance. What was most annoying is that I never, ever saw anything put out to the public that detailed how easy it is to protect oneself from radiation (if one uses a little common sense and the four principles of protection).

    “There are novelists who do research, and then… there was that guy.” Yeah, I’m that guy. I’m a nerd and proud of it. However, one thing separating me from my fellow nerds is a talent I discovered that I have – I can take scientific stuff and put it into common sense and understandable terms for folks. My basic radiation training program is designed to draw on a basic high school knowledge. In its first twenty minutes YOU will draw the conclusion (I just point you in the right direction) that radiation is not the big scary deal that so many make it out to be. It is so much fun to see the light bulbs come on.

    You pointed it out, and I do not wish for any reader to think I am down playing the dangers of radiation, that radiation can be dangerous. It most definitely can be dangerous. However, if people would use the analogous danger of electricity as a guide and do a little radiation risk study, they might recognize that radiation is not particularly dangerous at low levels. Pretty much anything below 30 volts with low amperage will not kill a person barring unusual physiological conditions.

    I just realized I am starting to get on a roll. Radiation safety is my passion and I will go on all day about it. Feel free to asks questions, but be prepared for a lot of info.

    1. Bill K

      Grimm, I beg to differ. When Hognose said, “that guy”, I think he meant a writer who did no research. You are NOT that guy.

      It amused me going from being a chem major where we used NMR to study molecular structure, to med school where we used MRI to image pathology. One day I asked, “Why don’t they call it ‘NMRI since it’s nuclear magnetism we’re manipulating’?” And the answer was, “‘Nuclear’ scares people – they don’t need to know that.”

      But the other thing that bothered me in earlier years of practice were the radiation therapy docs who competed against medical oncologists and surgeons in days of yore for patients with certain cancers, e.g. breast, uterine, prostate, hawking their wares with statements like, “You don’t want to be CUT open, do you?”, without being completely truthful, as if radiation therapy had NO side effects. And then fast forward about 20 years and delayed lymphomas and myeloplastic bone marrow disorders were significant. So yes, “radioactive materials are rarely immediately life threatening” But still worthy of respect. Of course, if you’ve got as many cell generations as some denizens here, that may not be an issue.

      1. aGrimm

        Bill: I know you are right about “That Guy”, but I needed a hook to get my nerd status in. : ) My undergrad degree was in Nuc Med Technology so I know exactly what you are talking about regarding the medical world. Additionally I have a brother who is a relatively renowned radiation oncologist whose specialty is prostate cancer. We used to have some good professional arguments because from his perspective of high dose usage, radiation is extremely dangerous, and it is at the doses he delivers. However, low dose is another story and I had to work hard for him to see it.

        To all: I am so impressed with your knowledge and genuinely pleased to see it. All my career I battled radiation ignorance including getting spat upon, shoved and having my life threatened (Christmas Eve no less). There was a time when the anti-nuclear types were just plain rabid dogs. Not so much today, thank goodness.

        1. Hognose Post author

          Of course it’s hazardous at the dangers your bro delivers… otherwise it wouldn’t be therapeutic. Like anything else, “the dose makes the poison.” But hey, it’s 2014 and more people get their medical knowledge from Jenny McCarthy or (heroin addict!) Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

    2. Hognose Post author

      One of my online SF buds, now proprietor of an exotic animal farm, also spent time as a cop and as a nuclear health guy at powerplants.

      People are stupid about risk. That’s a pretty well established psychological fact. The media, most of whom are English or Journo majors who flunked out of the science track in 3rd Grade, don’t help. Some ridiculous percentage of Americans think a nuclear power plant can blow up like Fat Man or Little Boy. Indeed, a ridiculous percentage think it DID in Chernobyl, Fukushima, or Three Mile Island. (Not that the first two weren’t serious).

      Most everybody who is trying to apply that tincture of idiocy, The Precautionary Principle, outs himself as a dumb-ass in so doing.

      Electricity is a good analogy. So is water. So is government (“a powerful servant and a fearsome master”).

      But somewhere right now, some dumbass is typing into whatever they have now instead of Atex terminals: “An exchange of nuclear weapons would end all life on earth.” right, that’s why Hiroshima’s a desert. And he probably drives a Mazda — made in Hiroshima, and remarkably free of glow-in-the-dark properties.

      1. aGrimm

        To teach radiation risk I had to study all risk. Want to know one of the highest risk factors there is? Being a male between the ages of 18-25. It is a lot higher than being a smoker. As I showed this in class I would turn to the ladies and ask, “You all know why this is don’t you? We men at those ages are really stupid aren’t we?” It always got a whole hearted approval.

  2. Aesop

    Thanks for this PSA, and the expertise that brought it to us.
    Come here for the fun, stay for the CEs in nuclear medicine.

    My online post-post-graduate education continues to be way more fun and interesting than any of the pre- versions ever were.

  3. Y.

    But you know, decades after the nuclear age was rung in, there are still more deaders from riding with Senator Kennedy, or falling off the high-wire, or being hit by a falling Concorde, than from nuclear power plants.

    No longer true due to Chernobyl casualties. IIRC, there were about 41, in total, whose demise can be attributed directly to the accident. In total, less than 200 people died in nuclear materials related accidents.

    Interesting that no one is outraged about coal. Just mining accidents have managed to kill vastly more people than anything atomic..

    1. Hognose Post author

      Well, you have a point. Chernobyl was what happens when you combine high-risk technology with Soviet leadership styles. Well, that and any number of sub reactor problems.

      1. Bill K

        Anybody know what the status of Chernobyl environs is today? IIRC, they had an exclusion zone, but some folks refused to leave. They doing OK?

        1. Y.

          They’re still there. Most of the area could probably be inhabited without any health issues., but the contamination is uneven. Wildlife is apparently doing pretty good as the area is described as teeming with it. Though some show abnormalities due to radiation.

          The people who live there are mostly old women, who grew up during 1930’s or WWII. So, pretty tough probably.

          Ukrainians are not deterred by radiation. Przewalski horses were introduced to the area, but as of now the population has declined somewhat due to poaching.

          I’m amazed how people can actually live in Ukraine. The prices there are about the same as in the US (except real estate), but ordinary people earn $200-300 per month.

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