Staying Safe in a Radiological or Nuclear Attack

Dear Dr. Zoomie: Last week a big nuclear terrorism exercise made the news, and I can’t help but wonder “What do I do if something like this happens for real? How do I keep myself and my family safe?”

I’ve been working on this, and related topics for some time and can say, first off, that most of our immediate instincts are wrong. If you can do the right thing – and do it quickly – even a nuclear attack can be survived. But in the case of a nuclear attack, it’s what you do in the first few minutes – before the first public service announcement – that will save your life. Or not. Anyhow – I can’t promise that following the steps listed here are guaranteed to save your life in the case of a nuclear attack. But I can tell you that following these steps will maximize your chance of survival. Oh – I’ll also point out that much of this (sheltering, for example) is simply sound advice for any major attack; not just radiological or nuclear, but also for chemical, biological, bombs, and even most cases of active shooters.

  1. Don’t try to evacuate – go into the nearest (and largest) safe building and wait until the fallout pattern can be mapped so that we know where it’s safe to go outside versus where it’s dangerously radioactive. If you’re outside and in the wrong place (the fallout plume) you will die – if you shelter in a building (as far away from the walls and roof as possible) you will survive. As soon as the plume footprint is known, the government will let us know who should continue sheltering, when it’s safe to evacuate, and the route to take that will give the lowest radiation dose. As the Brits say – Go in, Stay in, Tune in.
  2. Don’t pick your kids up from school or day care! If you are in the fallout plume then radiation levels will be dangerously high. If you go outside, you will pick up a fatal dose of radiation. If you get your kids out of school then they will also receive a fatal radiation dose. The safest thing for everybody is for all of you to shelter indoors.
  3. Prepare – not just for this, but for any big bad thing that might happen. What’s the best building for you to shelter in near work? Around your favorite hangouts? Near home? Where will you find water for the 1-3 days you might have to shelter (for example – you can drink the water in the toilet tank, fruit juice and beer will keep you hydrated, bottled water, etc.)? How about a few days’ worth of food (might finally get around to eating those canned yams!)? You can’t starve to death in a few days, and probably won’t die of thirst either – but we also want to have the strength to evacuate when the time comes.
  4. Make up a family communication and reunion plan – do you know how you’ll let your kids, spouse, etc. that you’re OK? Where will you meet up when the sheltering order is lifted? Figure this out now because an emergency is not the time to be winging it. Even if you can’t find each other right away, you can at least know that everyone is OK. And remember – you might not have to talk directly! Having everyone call in to grandparents, good family friends, etc. will also let everyone know that everyone else is OK.
  5. Radiation and pregnancy – it takes a lot more radiation to cause problems with pregnancy than most people think. Also, most physicians don’t know as much about the reproductive effects of radiation as one might think – after Chernobyl there were at least 100,000 women who had unnecessary abortions because their doctors gave them poor medical advice. Before making any decision about terminating a pregnancy – or letting a pregnancy proceed – talk with someone who can help you to figure out how much dose your baby received and whether or not it’s enough dose to cause problems. THEN you can take this information to your OB/GYN to see if the risk from the radiation – combined with other risk factors (age, alcohol and tobacco use, health problems, etc.) – is unacceptable. You can find a knowledgeable professional by contacting the Health Physics Society (hps.org) and then clicking on “Public Information” and “Ask the Experts.” Choose the “Pregnancy and Radiation” topic area.

One other thing – a lot of people might want to buy their own radiation detectors so they can find out for themselves if they’re safe. There’s no problem with this – but they need to buy a GOOD detector (not a cheap and inaccurate one) that will give accurate readings up to dangerously high levels. Some types of detectors overload at levels that are still safe – you want to avoid these. In addition, some kinds of radiation detectors are good for measuring radiation dose and others are designed to measure contamination – you can’t just use any radiation detector for all purposes. Two radiation detectors I’ve used and think highly of are the Dosime and the Ludlum Model 25. Both are solid radiation detectors that give accurate dose rate readings anywhere from normal natural radiation all the way to dangerously high levels. Both are affordable, and both are made by companies that make professional-quality radiation instruments.

Finally, learn how to use the detector, learn what normal “background” radiation levels are in your area, and use the meter every now and again to make sure it’s still operating properly and to remind yourself how to use it. Otherwise you might end up with an inoperable meter, the wrong type of meter, or one you don’t know how to use. Using the wrong instrument (or the right instrument, but improperly) can be more dangerous than performing no survey at all because it can lead to a false sense of safety. And – by the way – most “Geiger counters” are NOT the right instrument to use for something like this!

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