Nuclear and Radiological Attacks

Radiation cannot be seen, smelled, felt, or tasted by humans. Therefore, if people are present at the scene of an explosion, they will not know whether radioactive materials were involved at the time of the explosion.

What to do during a nuclear or radiological attack:

  • Do not look at the flash or fireball-it can blind you.
  • Take cover as quickly as you can. Implement your company's shelter-in-place plan, unless instructed to evacuate the area.
  • If you are caught outside, unable to get inside immediately, take cover behind anything that might offer protection. Lie flat on the ground and cover your head. Seek shelter indoors as quickly as possible.
  • Protect yourself from radioactive fallout. If you are close enough to see the brilliant flash of a nuclear explosion, the fallout will arrive in about 20 minutes. Take shelter, even if you are many miles from ground zero-radioactive fallout can be carried by the winds for hundreds of miles.
    • Remember the three protective factors: shielding, distance, and time. Radiation has a cumulative effect, the longer a person is exposed, the greater the risk.
  • If you have been exposed to radiation, remove your clothes as soon as possible, place them in a plastic bag, and seal it. Removing clothing will remove most of the contamination caused by external exposure to radioactive materials. Take a shower, washing will reduce the amount of radioactive contamination on the body and will effectively reduce total exposure.
  • Keep a battery-powered radio with you, and listen for official information. Follow the instructions given. Local instructions should always take precedence: officials on the ground know the local situation best.

Dirty Bomb

A dirty bomb, or radiological dispersal device (RDD), combines conventional explosives, such as dynamite, with radioactive material, such as spent nuclear reactor fuel rods. The device is designed to kill or injure by creating a zone of intense radiation that could extend several city blocks. It is unlikely that the radioactive material contained in a dirty bomb would kill anyone. The radioactive material would be dispersed into the air and reduced to relatively low concentrations, resulting in low doses to people exposed. A low-level exposure to radioactive contamination could increase the long-term risk of cancer. However, exposure to radiation at higher levels could result in radiation sickness or radiation poisoning. The main purpose of a dirty bomb is to frighten people and make buildings or land unusable for a long period of time.

Symptoms of Radiological Exposure:

The extent of radiation contamination depends on a number of factors including the size of the explosive, the amount and type of radioactive material used, and weather conditions. The symptoms of radiation sickness include nausea and vomiting; diarrhea; skin bums (redness, blistering); weakness, fatigue, exhaustion, fainting dehydration; inflammation of areas (redness, tenderness, swelling, bleeding); hair loss; ulceration of the mouth; ulceration of the esophagus and the remainder of the gastrointestinal system; vomiting blood, bloody stool; bleeding from the nose, mouth, gums, and rectum bruising; sloughing of skin; open sores on the skin.

Prevention / Treatment:

Radiation cannot be detected by human senses. However, a variety of instruments are available for detecting and measuring radiation. Federal officials have placed radiation sensors throughout the District. If individuals are facing a situation in which they know there has been a release of radiation, they should seek shelter indoors to reduce exposure. People should stay there until the radiation levels drop. Ventilation systems using outside air should be shut off and contaminated foods should be avoided. If people are in an area where there has been an explosion or are covered with residue, they should remain in that location for emergency response personnel who will begin decontamination. By leaving the area before being treated, people run the risk of spreading the contamination.

Emergency response officials will arrange medical treatment for those injured by the blast, evacuating people from the area, decontaminating those who were contaminated and assessing any internal or external exposures. Potassium iodide pills are effective in keeping the thyroid gland from absorbing radioactive iodine and developing cancer, but they are ineffective against other radioactive isotopes that may be used in a dirty bomb attack.

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