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The world is making an increasing move towards sustainable energy sources like nuclear power, and while it’s reported a lot safer than in the years of the Chernobyl Disaster (1986), exposure to radiation is still a concern for many. Radiation leaks at Japan’s Fukushima plant – the country’s number one producer of nuclear energy – has put radiation and safety under the spotlight again. Here’s what you should know.
How Exposure Happens
Radiation exposure can happen in a number of ways: Nuclear war is the obvious Hollywood answer, but radiation exposure can also originate from a nuclear leak at a power plant, coming into contact with radioactive waste materials or radiation in the environment. This can become a serious concern if you live in the vicinity of a nuclear power plant, for example.
Sometimes exposure is obvious and sudden like in the event of an accident. Other times people can be exposed to micro-doses over a long period of time and not know there’s a problem until they start showing symptoms. For overall safety, this article covers both. (It’s important to note that exposure through x-rays are generally not considered dangerous.)
1. Recognize the Symptoms
The first step is recognizing the symptoms of radiation sickness (also called Acute Radiation Syndrome). Radiation exposure is measured in Grays (Gy), and people will start showing the first symptoms of mild radiation sickness once they hit a level of 1 Gy. It goes without saying that the higher the exposure (or the longer the period of time), the worse the symptoms and less likely the recovery.
Symptoms of ARS include nausea and vomiting, headaches, confusion and disorientation, fever and overall fatigue. With severe forms of exposure, you’ll also spot symptoms like infections throughout the body, hair loss, slowed healing of injuries, a drop in blood pressure and blood in vomit and stools.
2. Have an Emergency Plan
Your grandparents were right about a lot of things, but especially this: It’s always better to be prepared. Find out if your state has a formal plan in place in the event of a large-scale nuclear disaster or leak and familiarize yourself with it. In addition, you want to set up an emergency plan with your family, friends and community should such an event occur. Make sure everyone knows decontamination procedures, has access to important contact information and knows where to find any crucial survival items. For many people who live near nuclear reactors there’s already a solid emergency plan in place should an accident happen issued from the reactors’ governing body themselves: Google is your friend.
3. Your Disaster Kit
The Centers for Disease Control recommends an emergency supply kit containing the basics of at least a three-day food and water supply. When it comes to food, things that can be stored for a long period of time and prepared without much effort is ideal: Cans and dry foods. (Don’t forget the obvious: A can opener.) Medical supplies go without saying, and this will likely be tailored to your family’s needs beyond the basics: Does anyone have a chronic medical condition? The CDC also recommends multipurpose tools, a radio, a phone with extra chargers and a flashlight, extra money, maps and duplicate keys. (Don’t forget your pets in your disaster plan, either, and the same preparation applies for them.) See the full article on the CDC’s website here.
4. Purchase a Decontamination Kit
Especially if the danger of a nuclear leak is imminent, you might want to consider getting yourself a radiation decontamination kit. There’s one available for order from Biodex over here. It includes, among other things, two disposable coveralls, shoe covers and respirators, a gallon of Radiacwash, Radiacwash towelettes, Radiacwash spray mist, a sponge, mop, scrub brush, rope and signs.
5. First steps – Your Safehouse
In many cases, it’s safer to stay right where you are and wait it out rather than try to evacuate and rush into the danger. If you’re staying where you are, it’s recommended that you take measures to seal up the shelter immediately. If there’s a basement, it’s logical to take shelter there. Close all the doors and windows, and use duct tape and plastic sheeting to seal windows and doors (but keep in mind that you don’t want to die from oxygen starvation either). Turn off fans and air conditioning. The Connecticut Department of Public Health shows you exactly how to seal doors and windows here (cut sheeting six inches wider than you need, and tape corners first).
6. External Decontamination
(Think of pretty much every apocalyptic movie you’ve ever seen, including Stephen King’s The Mist.) Step one is to remove and discard your clothing. If possible, take a shower – running water, even tap water, is one of the first steps to removing external radiation from the body. Then, get dressed in other clothing, which should always be part of your disaster kit. It’s recommended that you discard the clothes that might have come into contact with radiation as well as any cloths you might have used to clean yourself off.
7. Internal Decontamination
With radiation exposure, there’s also the chance that you will have to decontaminate your body internally. (Remember: One of the criteria for radiation exposure is that it’s absorbed externally, but penetrates internally; the thyroid gland is especially vulnerable to radiation exposure, and symptoms will likely show there, too.)
Make sure you’ve got Potassium Iodide (KI) tablets around: This reduces the amount of radiation that the thyroid will take in. It’s important to mention that KI can be dangerous if taken in case of no radiation, so check this with your doctor first and be absolutely sure that you have been exposed. (A sure-fire way is your standard Geiger-counter.) Many foods also naturally contain potassium iodide; while the levels naturally occurring in foods won’t be enough to decontaminate, it certainly can’t hurt to add them to your diet anyway.
Do you have any advice or personal experiences to share regarding radiation and radiation exposure? Please let us know. As a last note, of course, stay safe.
About the Author: Alex J. Coyne is an internationally-known freelance journalist, ghostwriter, author and language practitioner who believes in a healthy dose of caution. He is also an avid card player and qualified snake handler.