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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Dirty Bombs

[A] radioactive "dirty bomb" (...) spreads radioactive material that is highly toxic to humans and can cause mass death and injury. - Attorney General John Ashcroft, 2002
An analysis on Stratfor.com downplays the danger of Dirty Bombs. These types of bombs use common explosives to spread radioactive materials (hence ‘dirty’). There is no nuclear reaction, no mushroom cloud, just a normal explosion that coats an area with radioactive dust. Since they are much easier to build than an atom bomb, and radioactive byproducts are easier to acquire, there reasonable concern that terrorists will someday use dirty bombs.
The common media portrayal of dirty bombs is that they will “immediately cause hundreds or even thousands of deaths.” Not true, says Stratfor. A dirty bomb is not a “weapon of mass destruction” but rather a weapon of mass “disruption”. Immediate deaths would result from the explosion itself and the resulting panic when the bomb is found to be “dirty”. The dirty effects of the radioactivity are longer term and most people will be safely decontaminated (eventually).
The real problem is economic and psychological. Since anyone living or working in a radioactive area will sicken and die over days/weeks/years, the area must be cordoned off and abandoned until cleaned. A total cleanup will require relocating everyone, tearing down the buildings, streets, sidewalks, and scraping the soil. Not at all cheap if the area is downtown NY, London or DC. And not nice if the target is something historical and irreplaceable.
To back up their analysis downplaying the danger, Stratfor looks at the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in northern Ukraine. This was bigger than any possible dirty bomb and in fact more than one hundred times the radiation of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. The Chernobyl explosion killed 31 persons in the immediate aftermath. Over several decades it may contribute to the deaths of 9,000 people from radiation poisoning. But many of those affected by the radiation are still alive more than 20 years after the accident. Today, 5.5 million people live in the contaminated zone.
Fortunately for civilization, it’s not easy to use radiation as a mass weapon. Yes, a concentrated radioactive substance can kill individuals quickly with direct exposure – but such items are rare and quantities small. With dirty bombs the radiation is spread far and wide by the explosion; maximizing the number of people impacted but weakening the lethality.
Bottom Line
What should you do if you are a victim of a dirty bomb?
  • Don’t panic!
  • The CDC recommends sheltering inside a building with intact walls. If you’re outside, cover your mouth and nose to avoid breathing in the radioactive dust (VERY IMPORTANT), avoid touching anything, and get inside the nearest walled shelter quickly. While outside, clothing is an effective shield against energetic alpha particles but if you breath those same particles in – damage will be done.
  • If inside a damaged building, move to an undamaged interior room.
  • When you come in from outside, remove your shoes and outer clothing at the door. Up to 90% of the radioactive dust on you is on your clothes. Don’t spread it around your shelter. If possible seal your clothes, shoes, and breathing cloth/mask it in a plastic bag or other disposable storage. You don’t want to be near these clothes afterwards (or ever again).
  • Shut all windows, outside doors, and fireplace dampers. Turn off fans and heating and air-conditioning systems that bring in air from the outside. It is not necessary to put duct tape or plastic around doors or windows.
  • If outside or exposed, shower or wash ALL exposed skin with soap and water to remove any remaining dust. Be sure to wash your hair. Don’t put contaminated clothes back on. Don’t forget that your washing area may now be slightly radioactive from the rinsed off dust. Initially the washing water should be safe – water inside pipes at the time of the explosion is protected. But over time as water is used, you’ll be drawing from lakes and reservoirs that may have been exposed.
  • Cover any open wounds to keep radioactive dust out of your blood stream.
  • If you’re at home and have pets outside, get them indoors and wash them completely.
  • Tune to the local radio or television news for more instructions.
  • Don’t go outside until instructed to by authorities. When leaving your temporary shelter, cover up 100% with clean clothes/coat/blanket. You’ll need new shoes or a substitute. You’ll repeat the process of disposing the outer clothing layers and washing when you return to a shelter.
  • Do not attempt to rescue your children at their school. They should be safe in a school shelter. You endanger yourself by traveling and contaminate the school shelter by demanding entrance or even opening the door.
  • Don’t eat or drink from anything that was open and possibly contaminated by dust. Sealed food is ok but be sure to wash the outside container first. Avoid drinking public faucet water until authorities say it is safe. You don’t want to allow anything radioactive inside your body.
  • If all goes well, your exposure will be no worse than an intensive medical X-ray and there will be no symptoms. However if you experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and swelling and redness of the skin then you were exposed to a higher level of radiation and need medical attention ASAP.
Resources
CDC Public Service Announcements for a Dirty Bomb
(what you hope to never hear on your radio)
http://www.bt.cdc.gov/firsthours/word/messages_dirtybomb.doc
Nuclear War Survival Skills by Kresson H Kearny.
CNN
http://archives.cnn.com/2002/HEALTH/06/10/cohen.dirty.bomb.otsc/
Wikipedia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dirty_bomb