How Radiation Works

What to Do If You're Exposed to Radiation
A nuclear power plant accident could leak harmful radiation into the atmosphere.
A nuclear power plant accident could leak harmful radiation into the atmosphere.
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Many movies and books use threats from radiation, such as nuclear accidents and bombs, as fodder for thrill and chills. But what's real and what's not? It's probably safe to say that zombies won't rise up and take over the planet. We think. But radiation poisoning and sickness can and does happen. Radiation can leak into the environment in several ways -- a nuclear power plant accident, an atomic bomb explosion, accidental release from a medical or industrial device, nuclear weapons testing, or terrorism (like a dirty bomb). When we talk about radiation exposure here, we're mostly talking about the very rare occurrence of a large-scale release of radiation.

Every community has a radiation disaster plan in place. Your local officials should be trained in preparedness and will provide instructions should such an emergency occur. During a radiation emergency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may recommend you stay inside your home rather than evacuate. This is because the walls of your home can actually block some of the harmful radiation. The safest room in the house is the one with the least windows, possibly your basement or bathroom.

If you work around radiation and radioactive materials, there are mandates on the amount of radiation to which you can be exposed. Depending on the industry in which you work, there are also precautions like safety gear, masks, gloves and lead-lined aprons.

In the event of a radiation emergency, the first thing to figure out is if you are contaminated. If you have radioactive materials on or inside your body, you're contaminated. Contamination can quickly spread -- you'll shed external contaminants as you move about and release bodily fluids. The CDC recommends the following steps to limit contamination:

  1. Get out of the immediate area quickly.
  2. Remove your outer layer of clothing.
  3. Place clothing in a plastic bag or away from others.
  4. Wash all exposed parts of your body.
  5. Internal contamination may call for medical attention.

[source: CDC]

If you're exposed to radiation, medical personnel can evaluate you for radiation sickness or poisoning through symptom checks, blood tests, or a Geiger counter, which can locate radioactive particles. Depending on the severity of exposure, there are different types of medical treatment. Decontamination is the first step, and that may be all you need. Blood tests may be recommended every year or so to check for late-developing symptoms.


There are also pills you can take to reduce symptoms of exposure. You may have heard of people taking potassium iodide tablets in a nuclear emergency. These tablets prevent radioactive iodine from concentrating in your thyroid. It's important to understand that potassium iodide offers no protection from direct radiation exposure or other airborne radioactive particles. Prussian blue is a type of dye that will bind to radioactive elements like cesium and thallium. It will speed up your body's elimination of radioactive particles, reducing the amount of radiation your cells might absorb. Diethylenetriamine pentaacetic acid (DTPA) binds to the metal in radioactive elements like plutonium, americium and curium. The radioactive particles pass out of the body in urine, again reducing the amount of radiation absorbed.

For more information about radiation, expose yourself to the links on the next pa­ge.

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