Atomic Deaths: How to Avoid Everyday Radiation Poisoning

Atomic Deaths: How to Avoid Everyday Radiation Poisoning

It’s odorless, tasteless, invisible and, in the right amounts, it can kill you almost instantly.

Threats to your survival don’t have to be visible to be real. They can surround you, silently chipping away at your body on a molecular level.

Radiation is an all-too-real danger you are constantly bombarded with on a daily basis. It’s around us all the time and exists in different forms: naturally occurring, cosmic, terrestrial, and manmade. It’s an energy that comes from a source, travels through space, and is capable of penetrating even the hardest compounds.

How can we avoid it, and how can we protect ourselves from it?

A pie chart showing the sources of radiation on this planet

What Is Radiation?

Radiation is energy given off by unstable atoms, but exactly where does it come from?

All things are made of atoms, and those atoms are made up of three components: protons, neutrons, and electrons. The atomic number of an element determines the type of element, and that number is derived from how many protons are in the atom’s nucleus. Stable elements such as hydrogen, helium, and nitrogen are non-radioactive, while unstable elements such as plutonium and uranium have an imbalance in their number of protons and electrons. The unstable atom will try to become stable by trying to shed the excess electrons in the form of radiation.

Dose=Dose Rate X Time

Radiation dose is the radiation energy absorbed by the human body. Dose is like the odometer in your car. It measures the total number of miles traveled. The more miles traveled, the more miles recorded. The same is true with radiation: The greater the amount of time spent around a radioactive source, the more dose you receive. The more energy deposited into the body, the higher the dose.

Dose is measured in units of rem or roentgen (pronounced r nt g n). It is a measure of the ionization produced in the air by X-rays or gamma radiation, and it is used because air ionization can be measured directly.

Radiation dose rate is radiation energy received over a period of time. Dose rate is like the speedometer in your car. Radiation dose rate is the dose received over time.

A chart depicting the average dose of radiation you will get from sources in your daily life

What’s The Risk?

At low doses, scientists presume radiation causes harm. However, no physical effects have been observed. Not until you receive a dose greater than 50R can healthcare professionals even tell you’ve been in a radiation area. Although somewhat controversial, this increased risk of cancer is presumed to be proportional to the dose (no matter how small).

The bad news is that radiation is a carcinogen and a mutagen. The good news is that radiation is a very weak carcinogen and mutagen. High-dose effects have been seen in radium dial painters, early radiologists, atomic bomb survivors, populations near Chernobyl, medical treatments, and critical accidents. In addition to radiation sickness, increased cancer rates are also evident from high-level exposures.

How Does Radiation Affect My Body?

We are constantly exposed to low levels of radiation from outer space, earth, and from X-ray machines at the doctor’s office. But if we’re exposed to radiation all the time, and radiation is harmful, why doesn’t it kill us?

Exposure in small amounts over time (called a “chronic” dose) allows your body to “fix” damaged cells and recover. Exposure to radiation in larger doses (called an “acute” dose) takes a toll on your cells and leaves little to no time for their recovery. Massive doses of radiation can completely obliterate cells and major organs.

Direct damage occurs when the “kicked out” electron hits and breaks a DNA strand. DNA damage is the most important consequence this displaced electron can have on human tissue and can lead to cell malfunction or death. Our body has about 60 trillion cells. Each cell takes “a hit” about every 10 seconds, resulting in tens of millions of DNA breaks per cell each year.

Our bodies have a highly efficient DNA repair mechanism. Low levels (extremely low, yet measurable levels) of naturally occurring radioactive material are in our environment, the food we eat, and in many consumer products. And some consumer products, such as smoke detectors and wristwatches, even contain small amounts of manmade radioactive mater-ial. Exposure to these small amounts still cause damage to your cells but not so much that the cells are not able to replicate.

Long-term Effects Of Radiation

Radiation is assumed to increase one’s risk of cancer. The “normal” chance of dying of cancer is about 23 percent. Each rem is assumed to increase that risk by 0.05 percent.

But there’s a caveat: Radiation affects everyone differently. Depending on your health and biological makeup, radiation exposure may affect you differently than it does your neighbor. It has been known to affect young and old more than healthy, middle-aged people. For instance, when the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima, there were many survivors. Survivability depended largely on where they were during the blast, as well as their health status. Many people survived with major injuries, and yet, some perished with minor injuries.

How To Avoid Radiation

In the radiation worker field, time, distance, and shielding are the basic fundamentals of “avoiding” exposure to potentially harmful radiation. The idea is to minimize the time spent around the source, create distance between you and the source, and put something (water, plastic, aluminum, steel, lead, or concrete) between you and the source so that you’re not getting maximum exposure.

Another good example of this time, distance, and shielding fundamental is how it works in regard to you and the sun—a potentially hazardous source of energy (in excess amounts). If you’re at the beach on a bright summer day, you might be wearing an oversized hat and dark sunglasses to protect your face and eyes from the bright, hot sun. Hopefully, you didn’t skip the step where you squeeze white, gooey paste from a tube and rub it all over your body (we’ll refer to this as “shielding”). The sun’s warmth feels good on your body, especially after a long winter
indoors. But it only feels good for a short amount of time before becoming unbearable.

A graph showing the dose of radiation that different types of x-rays will give you

After being in the sun long enough for you to feel uncomfortable or for your skin to become red and painful to the touch, you decide to duck into a local pub and grab a seat farthest away from windows or doors to “cool off” (we’ll call this “distance”). If you’ve managed to get a little sunburn, cells closest to the surface of your skin have become damaged. As soon as you escape the sun, those cells start to replicate, and the healing process begins. If you remain in the sun for an extended period of time without any shielding, your body may become so badly burned that you die (OK, maybe you won’t die, but you might get seriously fried) from the “exposure” to the sun’s harmful rays. Keep in mind that in this scenario, you can see and feel this potentially harmful source. But you can’t see, smell, touch, feel, or taste radiation.

So, how can we avoid something if we have no idea where it’s coming from? The only way to know if you’re around potentially harmful radiation is to have a radiation detection device such as a personal radiation detector (PRD). These small, handheld devices will notify you of the presence of small amounts of radiation, and, with the proper settings, will sound an alarm in the presence of potentially hazardous amounts of radiation.

There are many types of radiation detectors. Some are able to detect alpha, beta, and gamma radiation, while most are only able to detect gamma. Most only detect the presence of radiation, while some are able to not only detect radiation but also identify the radioactive isotope you’ve just detected. Prices range from a couple of hundred dollars for a Ludlum 14C (14 Charlie) to several thousand dollars for a Thermo-Fisher RiiD (Radioactive Isotope IDentifinder).

How Can You Protect Yourself?

Get trained. Know first aid and what to do before a radiological event affects your people and facilities. Have an emergency kit and plan. Teach your friends, family, and co-workers about radiation and relative risk factors. Don’t panic and do something more risky that the radiation you’re running from. Keep personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, respirators (surgical masks), and eyewear to prevent contamination and inhalation damage.

Having a few things on hand can aid you in ensuring that you and your family stay safe in a radiation area. Radiation damages our cells’ DNA, but fortunately, our body has very efficient repair mechanisms. Large, acute doses of radiation can cause sickness or even death. The severity of the effects is proportional to the dose. All exposures are presumed to increase the risk of cancer.

Remember: The amount of “increased risk” is proportional to exposure.


Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the November 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide. 

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