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Disaster Preparedness

Featured Article: Fact Sheet on Dirty Bombs

A "dirty bomb" is one type of a radiological dispersal device (RDD) that combines conventional explosives, such as dynamite, with radioactive material. The terms dirty bomb and RDD are often used interchangeably in the media. Most RDDs would not release enough radiation to kill people or cause severe illness - the conventional explosive itself would be more harmful to individuals than the radioactive material. However, depending on the situation, an RDD explosion could create fear and panic, contaminate property, and require potentially costly cleanup. Making prompt, accurate information available to the public may prevent the panic sought by terrorists.

A dirty bomb is in no way similar to a nuclear weapon or nuclear bomb. A nuclear bomb creates an explosion that is millions of times more powerful than that of a dirty bomb. The cloud of radiation from a nuclear bomb could spread tens to hundreds of square miles, whereas a dirty bomb’s radiation could be dispersed within a few blocks or miles of the explosion. A dirty bomb is not a “Weapon of Mass Destruction” but a “Weapon of Mass Disruption,” where contamination and anxiety are the terrorists’ major objectives.

The extent of local contamination would depend on a number of factors, including the size of the explosive, the amount and type of radioactive material used, the means of dispersal, and weather conditions. Those closest to the RDD would be the most likely to sustain injuries due to the explosion. As radioactive material spreads, it becomes less concentrated and less harmful. Prompt detection of the type of radioactive material used will greatly assist local authorities in advising the community on protective measures, such as sheltering in place, or quickly leaving the immediate area. Radiation can be readily detected with equipment already carried by many emergency responders. Subsequent decontamination of the affected area may involve considerable time and expense.

Immediate health effects from exposure to the low radiation levels expected from an RDD would likely be minimal. The effects of radiation exposure would be determined by:

  • the amount of radiation absorbed by the body;
  • the type of radiation (gamma, beta, or alpha);
  • the distance from the radiation to an individual;
  • the means of exposure-external or internal (absorbed by the skin, inhaled, or ingested); and the length of time exposed.

The health effects of radiation tend to be directly proportional to radiation dose. In other words, the higher the radiation dose, the higher the risk of injury.