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Radiation 101

By: Jorge Palafox

May 10, 2011


Since everywhere you look abounds with an increased awareness of contamination, I thought this would be a good way to start the dialogue within the virtual disaster community.  The focus is to inform the general public with the basics, to share with your neighborhood.  Knowledge is empowering.  Giving you the “low down” from a “what you need to know” perspective, provides you with the pertinent information that can help you decide how to approach any potential threats from increased levels of radiation, especially if you have health issues or know of someone who does.  Remember the most vulnerable are the young – your children –, the ill and the elderly, so it is important to get the facts.

People don’t have the time to look up all the credible sources to get a general idea of “what’s up”!  The media floods the airwaves with sound bytes that could make you panic.  Japan has suffered a major event, one in which affects us all, especially with six (6) nuclear power plants in the same area that have encountered the almost unimaginable.  8.9 Earthquake and a major tsunami; who would have thought!  I put a YouTube flick at the end of this article I found before the Japanese disaster occurred when working on a project for a class, that was suppose to be “Hollywood”.  Of course, it was made in Japan.  I was using it to build a web-based lesson on disaster preparedness targeting 5th and 6th graders.  In “Hollywood” it’s cool, for real…….NOT!

Anyways, I digress.  Lets all do a quick review on nuclear physics to get you a “bit in the know”, especially when it comes to your health.

Radiation Measurement

We need to consider the measurement of radiation.  There are three (3) separate categories depending on what’s being measured:  where the radiation comes from, the source; the radiation dose absorbed by the person; and what the potential biological risk (health effects), the exposure, will cause to a person.  Let’s explore each a bit further.

Most of us know that radioactive material gives off, or emits, radiation.  It is important to know how much started at the source, measured in a conventional unit known as the Curie (CI).  An atom emits radioactivity because its nucleus may have too many particles, too much energy or mass that affects its stability.  The nucleus’ natural tendency is to break down to become more stable.  As it disintegrates, energy is released, and its amount of radiation can be measured.

Usually the first human body systems to be affected by radiation are our tissues. This is nothing new, since we are no strangers to the sun’s rays to try to get that awesome California glow.  This dosage is measured in Rads, reflecting the amount of energy deposited on human tissue, or the radiation absorbed dose.  Risk to health from the exposure is measured in Rem.

In determining biological risk, nuclear scientists have assigned a number to each alpha and beta particles, gamma rays, and X-rays, all types of the ionizing radiation released.  The number depends on each type’s ability to transfer energy to the cells of the body, the Quality Factor (Q).  When a person experiences exposure, scientists multiply the dose in Rad by the Q for type of radiation present.  Thus, obtaining an estimate on the individual’s biological risk in Rems (Rem = Rad X Q).  Enough math; what does that mean to you?


When are you contaminated by radiation?  Contamination occurs when radioactive material is deposited on or in an object or person.  Anything can be contaminated.  Radioactivity released into the environment can cause air, water, surfaces, soil, plants, buildings, people, or animals to become contaminated.  A person can have these materials on or inside their body.  We all receive radiation on a regular basis going outdoors, but this is usually minimal, or should be, unless you are using some sort of shielding like a good sun block, and generally has little impact on your health.  A little exposure can also be good, especially in the absorption of essential vitamins, as in vitamin D.  Long-term and in high dosages is a different story.

When radioactive dust, powder, or liquid comes into contact with a person’s skin, hair or clothing, that is considered external contamination.  The contact is external and affects the exterior of any surface, including people.  When radioactive materials are swallowed or enters the lungs, like through the respiratory system, internal contamination is the result.  Radioactive material can also enter the body through an open wound or absorbed through the skin, the biggest organ on the human body, especially following injury from a major emergency, such as an 8.9 earthquake.

Some radioactive materials stay in the body; others are deposited in different body organs.  There is also radiation that is eliminated from the body in blood, sweat, urine and feces.  So depending on your health, amounts and types of exposure, the human body can deal with a certain level of contamination.  Long-term affects – more studies are needed as it relates to the general population, since we do not normally live in high radioactive environments.


Hand in hand with contamination is exposure.  Radioactive material gives off energy that travels in waves or particles.  The energy results in radiation.  When you are exposed to radiation, the energy penetrates the body.  A simple X-ray exposes the body to radiation.  Hence, the lead aprons to protect your “vital parts”.

So like a typical X-ray, a person exposed to radiation does not necessarily have to worry about being contaminated with radioactive material, especially if protective measures are being taken.  As I stated earlier, exposure to radiation results in radioactive waves or particles penetrating the body.  To be contaminated, the radioactive material has to be on or inside the body.  In other words, for a person to be contaminated, he/she must be exposed to radiation released by radioactive material that becomes deposited on the surface or inside the body.  Be aware, that an uncontaminated person can also be exposed by being too close to radioactive material or a contaminated person.  So what are you to consider?


Generally, following a major emergency, you should deal with any “life or limb-threatening” injuries as a priority.  Radiological issues should be secondary.  Contamination alone is generally not a medical emergency or threat to public safety personnel rendering aid, the general public or facilities to which the injured are being transported for care.

Contaminated individuals who sustained injuries generally pose no threat to those who render care, such as healthcare providers, good Samaritans, etc., due to exposure to radiation.  As a responder, you should be prepared to provide prompt treatment of conventional traumatic injuries following a major disaster, even if there is evidence of exposure and contamination.  That is not to say that extra precautions should not be taken.  Protective clothing should be utilized to protect you from external contamination.

The purpose is to keep any radioactive material off the skin and personal clothing.  Paper or cloth coveralls, surgical scrubs and nitrile gloves can provide acceptable protection.  Additional precautions can be taken to minimize inhalation and ingestion of most radioactive material by using particulate protective masks, such as respirators or basic cloth masks.  These types of respiratory protective devices are typically designed to filter particulates.  Substances, such as radon and tritium gases, will not be hindered by these types of filters. However, the key is for short-term exposure to these types of nuclides and are not usually medically significant.


Medical treatments are specific and target specific types of exposure.  Near the vicinity of the nuclear accident, the best measure is to get out of the contaminated environment, limit exposure and remove any outer wear that could potentially be covered with radioactive material.  Washing off the body is another protective measure.  Depending on the amount of radioactive material being removed by water, collecting the contaminated water may be an issue.  There is still much debate on how to deal with the water after contaminated persons are washed off.  Do you collect it or allow it to wash out into the eco-system?

Potassium Iodide (KI) and Prussian Blue (PB) are some medications you may have heard about.  When radioactive iodine is released in the air, it can be breathed in.  Once it enters the body, the thyroid gland absorbs it causing thyroid gland injury.  KI helps protect the thyroid.  Other radioactive materials, such as cesium (mainly CS-137) and thallium (mainly TI-201), are contained by PB in the intestines and keeps them from being re-absorbed by the body.  However, the issue is how can I protect my other body systems and organs if they are exposed to contaminated materials?  Good question!  The simple answer is that there is not one pill to cure all!

For those of you far away from the nuclear accident, such as people on the west coast of the USA in reference to Japan’s nuclear incident, we have all heard of an increase level of radioactive materials being measured.  Currently, the levels are extremely low.  The inquiring public should also be asking what specifically are the government and health authorities measuring.  Are there other radioactive materials that should be on our collective ”radars”?

Radioactive iodine (RI) is what has been reported to be measured.  Luckily, its half life is about eight (8) days.  So anything contaminated by RI, let’s say milk, every 8-days its radioactivity decreases by half.  I know of some people buying dosimeter badges (the ones you see in nuclear medicine or radiology techs wearing) to do their own monitoring.  Not a bad idea, if you can deal with the extra cost.  It doesn’t hurt to validate what the authorities are telling you, especially to protect your loved ones and to monitor your local environment.

Just in case you want to impress your friends or neighbors at that next get-together or barbeque.  There are also non-specific treatments; one being DPTA-Chelator for plutonium, americium and curium.  Very bad nuclear material!

You could obtain more detailed and valuable information at


Being informed and advocating for safety regarding use of nuclear energy are key ways to protect you, your loved ones and your neighborhood.  Living far enough away from an actual nuclear power plant is probably your best bet.  Also, ensuring that building codes are strictly enforced when it comes to structures and where they are built (what are the potential hazards and vulnerabilities in the area?) will minimize the community’s chances of exposure and contamination.  Prevention and awareness are critical steps in avoiding unnecessary injuries to people and damage to property.

Thanks to your friendly neighborhood health department for the information provided, so that I could write this article.  Now, on the lighter side, play the video:

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