Guest post by Andrew Karam, PhD, CHP
Andrew is a good friend ( and drinking buddy) of mine, and since war is on everyone’s mind, I asked him to write this piece. Since 1981, Andrew has worked in areas related to radiation safety; as a radiation safety professional, a scientist and professor, a consultant, or an instructor. He’s a writer, with over 200 encyclopedia articles and several books in print, and an 8-book series (Controversies in Science, Facts on File) in the works, and his scientific and technical writing include 6 book chapters, a number of refereed papers, over 100 scientific presentations, several hundred encyclopedia articles, fact sheets, and over 100 technical articles and editorials in scientific and technical journals and newsletters . He currently is an international consultant in the area of radiation/nuke, and is the rad/nuke expert for the NYPD’s Counter-Terrorism Unit. To read more on Andrew click here.
What to do if a Nuclear Bomb Hits Times Square:
Last week a big nuclear terrorism exercise made the news, raising the question “What do I do if it’s not a drill? 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 say 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. 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. One other thing to keep in mind, we might not have any warning at all about a terrorist attack. But if somebody launches a missile at us, we should have a half hour (give or take a little) to prepare. Also, for those of you with pets: what’s good for you will be OK for your pets as well.
- 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.
- There’s no way to predict exactly how long anyone will have to shelter; there are just too many variables and the only way to have a precise answer is to make radiation measurements on the ground. But remember that the reason for staying inside is to be safe, and there’s more to safety than low radiation levels. We just don’t know if civil order will break down as we have seen it do after so many other large disasters – even if radiation levels are safe, it might still be a good idea to stay indoors until we can be assured that the streets are safe in all respects. In any event, you can expect to have to shelter for at least 6 hours, and probably no longer than 2-3 days.
- 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.
- Prepare – not just for this, but for any big event. 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. By the way, food and drink need not be canned or bottled in order to be safe. Anything that’s in a package, in your cupboards, in your refrigerator (any pet food in its bag or in a can) will be uncontaminated and OK to eat. The fallout will most likely be in the form of a fine, sandy substance – in general it’s unlikely to blow around as a dust would so the contamination isn’t expected to spread very easily.
- Make up a family communication and reunion plan – do you know how you’ll let your kids, spouse, etc. know 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. 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.
- 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.
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, and 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 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. Lastly, most “Geiger counters” are NOT the right instrument to use for something like this!