What is a “dirty bomb?"
A “dirty bomb” is a conventional explosive such as dynamite packaged with radioactive material that scatters when the bomb goes off. (The radioactive material would likely be material stolen from hospitals, nuclear power plants, or other industrial sites. It is not the same as an atomic bomb.) Most “dirty bomb” casualties will be from the initial blast of the conventional explosive. The radioactive material that is scattered as a result of the explosion causes the “dirty” part. The TNT in such a bomb may still be more dangerous than the radioactive material. Its destructive power would depend on the size of the conventional bomb, and the amount of the nuclear material used.
What is radiation?
Radiation is a form of energy that is present all around us. Different types of radiation exist, some of which have more energy than others, and some of which cause more harm to people than others. The dose of radiation that a person receives is measured in units called rem. For example, the average person gets about 1/3 of a rem from natural exposure during a year, and approximately 1/100th of a rem from one chest x-ray. Radiation comes from man-made sources such as x-ray machines, from the sun and outer space, and from some radioactive materials such as uranium in soil.
Will a “dirty bomb” make me sick?
The effects of a “dirty bomb” can vary, depending on what type of radioactive material is used and on how much material is scattered. Although a “dirty bomb” could cause serious injuries from the explosion, it most likely would not have enough radioactive material in a form that would cause serious radiation sickness among large numbers of people. Just because people are near a radioactive source for a short time or get a small amount of radioactive material on them does not mean they will get radiation sickness or cancer.
However, radioactive material is much more dangerous if it gets inside your body-by eating or drinking, breathing, or through an open wound-than if it remains outside. If you come into contact with radioactive material from a “dirty bomb,” take the following precautions: Do not eat, drink or smoke, do not lick your lips, and do not touch your hand to your face or to an open wound until you have left the contaminated area and have been properly decontaminated by experts.
What types of terrorist events might involve radiation?
Types of terrorist events could include introducing radioactive material into food or water supply (powdered or liquid radioactive material can be spread without using explosives), using explosives (like dynamite) to scatter radioactive materials (called a “dirty bomb”), bombing or destroying a nuclear facility, or exploding a small nuclear device. Although introducing radioactive material into the food or water supply would cause great concern, it probably would not cause much contamination or increase the danger of adverse health effects.
What are the signs of a radiation attack?
There will be signs of an explosion, but you cannot see or smell radiation.
How fast do I have to leave the area?
For the most likely “dirty bomb,” anyone who survives the explosion will actually have hours to evacuate. There is no need for panic. It takes hours to accumulate enough radiation from a “dirty bomb” to cause you to get radiation sickness or develop cancer.
How can I protect myself during a radiation emergency?
If you are advised to stay at home or office, you should do the following: Close all doors and windows, turn off ventilators, air conditioners and forced-air heating units that bring in fresh air from the outside. Only use units to recirculate air that is already in the building. Close fireplace dampers, move to an inner room, and keep your radio tuned to the emergency response network. If you are advised to evacuate: Follow the directions from your local officials, and if immediately available, take a flashlight, portable radio, batteries, essential medicines, and cash and credit cards.
You recommend NOT using public transportation when evacuating from a “dirty bomb” attack, but what about using my private vehicle?
If you drive your car or truck, some radiation material may get inside and will have to be cleaned out. Listen to local news broadcasts for instructions about cleaning your vehicle. If you drive your private vehicle, do not run the heater or air conditioner. When you get home, remove your clothing OUTSIDE and place it in plastic bags. Listen to local news broadcasts for instructions on how to discard these contaminated clothes.
I was a mile from the detonation-am I going to be sick?
Listen to emergency broadcast information for instructions that will depend on the size of the attack, direction of the wind, and components of the “dirty bomb.” It is extremely unlikely that anyone who survives the blast will become sick from radiation. In addition, your ability to have children will not be affected.
Will I be able to decontaminate my home and continue to live in it during and after the attack?
Yes. Decontamination is difficult but possible, and with reasonable effort and care, you should be able to return to a normal, safe life in your home.
Should I buy a radiation detector?
No. Unless you have been trained, you won’t be able to interpret the readings. Many of the Geiger counters available commercially are worthless or uncalibrated.
Should I purchase potassium iodide tablets for protection against radiation?
No. Potassium iodide (KI) (available over-the-counter) protects people from thyroid cancer caused by radioactive iodine, a cancer-causing agent that can be released in nuclear explosions. KI should only be taken in a radiation emergency that involves the release of radioactive iodine, and only radioactive iodine, such as an accident at a nuclear power plant or the explosion of a nuclear bomb. A “dirty bomb” will not contain radioactive iodine, so KI pills are of no use for a “dirty bomb.