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How to Protect Yourself From Nuclear Radiation Exposure

Updated on December 5, 2017

How to Protect Yourself from Radiation

With the damaged nuclear reactors in Japan there are many valid concerns about radiation and how to protect yourself.

First, you must realize that most people in other countries than Japan are probably quite safe. However, it does not allay many peoples' fears, especially those within 20 or 30 miles of the Japanese nuclear power plant.

Below you will find information on radiation, how to determine your dosage, and how to protect yourself and your family.

Types of Radiation Exposure

There are three types of ionizing radioactive particles and radiation in which a person should be concerned.  One thing to keep in mind is that nuclear radiation cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted. Radiation can only be detected by radiation detection devices.

Alpha particles - These cannot penetrate the outer layer of skin. However, if you have any open wounds you may be at some risk.

Beta particles - These particles can burn the skin, and in some cases damage eyes.

Gamma radiation. Different radio-nuclides emit gamma rays of varying strength. Unfortunately, gamma rays can travel long distances and penetrate entirely through the body.

Means of Exposure to Radiation

Naturally-occurring radioactivity affects everyone on earth to varying degrees. The most common, by far, comes from the gas Radon, which typically seeps into basements and is inhaled.

Exposure by inhalation occurs when a person breathes radioactive materials into the lungs. The chief concerns are radioactively contaminated dust, gasses, and smoke. Radioactive dust can lodge in the lungs and remain for a long period of time. As long as it remains in the lungs and continues to decay, the radiation exposure continues. Inhalation is of most concern for radio-nuclides that are alpha or beta radiation particle emitters. Alpha and beta particles can transfer large amounts of energy to the surrounding skin tissue, which damages the DNA. This damage can eventually lead to diseases and mutations, such as cancer.

Exposure by ingestion happens when someone swallows radioactive material, such as dust. The ingested radioactive can lodge in the internal organs, or work their way out through the digestive system.

Amount of Exposure to Radiation

One measurement of radiological exposure is in Rems. A typical person is exposed to approximately 100 mrem per year of natural radiation. Whereas, a person working with radiological materials can receive about 5,000 mrem per year.

Another measurement is in millisieverts.  Regarding the disaster at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima Japan, readings have peaked at an astonishing 400 millisieverts (mSv) per hour between Fukushima reactor numbers 3 and 4, following an explosion and fire at the Number 3 reactor.

Exposure to 400 mSv per hour is a a grave concern. The current average limit of exposure for nuclear plant workers is a total of 20 mSv, not per hour, but over an entire year!


Calculate Your Radiation Dosage

You can calculate the exposure of radiation using this handy tool from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Calculate Radiation Dosage

The inverse-square law
The inverse-square law | Source

Time, Distance and Shielding

Time, distance, and shielding are the three things to consider when trying to protect yourself from radiation. You should limit your exposure, when encountering radiation, beyond the normal amounts that you experience everyday.

Time: The longer that a human being are subjected to radiation the larger the dose will be for that person. In other words, stay indoors as long as possible in order to minimize exposure to a radioactive cloud of dust or particulates. If you are especially concerned, be sure to wear a protective mask when outside, so as to not inhale the radioactive dust.

Distance: By simply being more distant from the radiation source reduces the dose, according to the inverse-square law for a point source (see image to right).

Shielding: The more dense and thick the shielding the better. In the case of a nuclear meltdown or accident, particulates are released into the air and carried by the wind. By staying inside a car or house, without the air-conditioning or fans bringing air inside, you can limit your exposure almost completely.

The shielding strength or "thickness" is typically measured in units of g/cm2

Internal and External Exposure Sources
Internal and External Exposure Sources

Symptoms of Radiation Exposure

Symptoms of radiation sickness include:

  • nausea
  • weakness
  • hair loss
  • skin burns
  • reduced organ function.
  • premature aging
  • death

Potassium iodide (KI), administered orally shortly after exposure, can be used to protect the thyroid gland from ingested radioactive iodine in the event of an accident or attack at a nuclear power plant. It would protect you as a prevention from getting thyroid cancer.

It is most effective when it is distributed before exposure, and it can provide protection for up to 24 hours after exposure.

iOSAT Potassium Iodide Tablets, 130 mg (14 Tablets)
iOSAT Potassium Iodide Tablets, 130 mg (14 Tablets)

• Adults : 130 mg (see below as well for CDC addendum) 

• Adolescents: 12-18: WHO -- adult dose; CDC -- children's dose; if adult size (150 pounds or over) they should take the full adult dose, regardless of their age.

• Children age 3-12 years: 65 mg

• Infants : 1 mo. to 3 years, 32. 25 mg (ie half tablet)

• Newborns to 1 mo., 1/4 capsule.


Radioactive Gas or Radioiodine

One of the greatest dangers following a nuclear accident comes from the exposure to gases containing radioactive isotopes of iodine (radioiodine or Iodine-131), which is why Potassium iodide works to prevent exposure to internal organs. If the iodine-131 gas is breathed in or swallowed, it will concentrate in the thyroid gland and increase the risk of thyroid cancer.

A common treatment method for preventing iodine-131 exposure is by saturating the thyroid with non-radioactive iodine-127, which can be purchased over-the-counter or online.

Is soap and water really enough to get radiation off you?

Any person with radioactive contamination on their clothing and/or body should remove their clothing and then shower.

Soap and water can go a long way toward minimizing ingestion or absorption through the skin and keeping local contamination from spreading to others.

What are the long-term health concerns of radiation exposure?

In general, cancer is the most common long-term concern of exposure to radiation. Your  thyroid gland and bone marrow are especially sensitive to radiation. Research shows that certain cancer types are strongly linked to radiation exposure. These cancer types include leukemia, thyroid cancer, skin, lung, stomach and breast cancer.

But especially of concern are young children, who are very vulnerable to the long-term effect of radiation because their cells are actively dividing and multiplying as part of normal growth.

Pregnant women and fetuses are also particularly susceptible to the effects of radiation.  Mutations can happen if the exposure occurs during the early pregnancy. Also, mutations can sometimes be passed from parent to child.

Americans Racing to Buy Anti-radiation Pills

Should US and Canadian citizens be concerned about the Japanese nuclear power plant if it continues to spew radiation?

Some experts feel that US and Canadian citizens should not be concerned because the amount of radiation somewhat low and any residual radiation will be dissipated by the jet stream before it hits the Western coast.

Should people outside of Japan worry about radiation?

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    • profile image

      TeriR 2 years ago

      Wow, great article!

    • profile image

      King Neece 5 years ago

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    • GusTheRedneck profile image

      Gustave Kilthau 6 years ago from USA

      Tritrain - This article is comprehensive and well-balanced - and without the usual "scare" garbage. Nice work.

      Gus :-)))

    • SUSANJK profile image

      SUSANJK 6 years ago from Florida

      Do we need to worry about the radiation coming across to us.

    • Doc Snow profile image

      Doc Snow 6 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA

      Very timely, tritrain!

      Thanks for a valuable Hub.

    • FCEtier profile image

      Chip 6 years ago from Cold Mountain

      Info I've received from pharmacy journals and online sources say, "No." People in the U.S. don't need to worry.