What Happens If You’re Exposed to Nuclear Radiation?

The nuclear crisis in Fukushima, Japan is already on alert level 7 at par with the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in Russia, the worst nuclear disaster in history. According to a book published by the New York Academy of Sciences, over a million people around the world died of exposure to the nuclear radiation from Chernobyl. Also, the number of casualties are still rising as this nuclear fallout from two decades ago is affecting some people up to now.

This development makes the reality of another nuclear meltdown all too tangible not only in Japan but also in its neighboring countries. It also raises growing concern in nations largely dependent on energy provided by nuclear power plants like the U.S. Suddenly, we are once again alarmed by the dangers of nuclear radiation exposure. But how exactly does nuclear radiation affect us? What damage can it cause to the human body?

Experts say that radiation can only make you sick if you are exposed to more than 100 roentgen equivalent in man (rem) of it. This only happens in the event of a nuclear fallout from nuclear blasts and meltdowns. The more amount of nuclear radiation you are exposed to, the more severe are its repercussions to you.

Here's a rundown of the documented harmful, often fatal, effects of nuclear radiation exposure on the various parts of the body:

1. Skin and Hair - Nuclear radiation damages the germinal layer of the skin which leads to redness, blistering and sores. If a person receives 200 rem or more of radiation, it can instantly cause hair loss in clumps.

2. Central Nervous System (CNS) - The CNS includes the brain, spinal cord, and the nerves. Brain cells and nerve cells are killed at an exposure of 5,000 rems. It can result to death within 24 hours. Symptoms begin with nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, then drowsiness, lethargy, seizure, coma, respiratory failure and eventually death.

3. Thyroid - The thyroid is particularly susceptible to nuclear radiation specifically to radioactive iodine. High levels of radioactive iodine can damage a part of or the entire thyroid. Thyroid nodules, which will lead to thyroid cancer even after many years, may also develop.

4. Bone marrow - Bone marrow is responsible for creating red and white blood cells and platelets. However, the production of these is stopped when the bone marrow is destroyed by nuclear radiation. The decrease in red blood cells may only result to mild anemia but the drop in platelets and white blood cells will cause hemorrhage and infections, both of which can be fatal. The initial physical manifestations are said to be similar to flu and maybe ignored. Hence, people suspected to have been exposed to nuclear fallout who exhibit flu-like symptoms should undergo a blood count. Bone marrow damage from nuclear radiation is said to also cause leukemia even after 10 years.

5. Reproductive Organs - Intense radiation may impair the ovaries leading to permanent sterility or the very least temporary amenorrhea or absence of menstruation for three years. Testicles can also be damaged and could result to low sperm count or at its worst, permanent sterility.

6. Heart - More than 1,000 rems of radioactive material can instantly rupture small blood vessels which may lead to cardiovascular failure and possibly, death.

7. Lungs - Just like in the heart, high amounts of nuclear radiation affects the small blood vessels in the lungs which causes blood congestion, edema, inflammation, and the blockage of air sacs. These events make breathing harder and eventually impossible thus leading to death within a few months in 100% of the cases. Other nuclear radiation victims may also develop lung cancer.

8. Gastrointestinal Tract - If a person is exposed to 200 rems or more of radiation, the lining of the intestines and the gastrointestinal tract will be damaged causing nausea, bloody vomiting, diarrhea, and anorexia. If these occur along with bone marrow damage, the person can die from lack or nourishment, hemorrhage, exhaustion, and dehydration from water and electrolyte loss within one week.

9. Eyes - Radiation can cause temporary blindness and may develop cataract in radiation victims in as short as 2 years and as long as 30 years.

10. Unborn child - Pregnant mothers exposed to radioactive dust have a 20% risk of delivering dead babies. Infants who do survive have similar chances of having mental retardation, deformities, and cancer.

Is there any way to protect yourself from all these? If a nuclear meltdown does occur, experts say the only effective protection is a lead lined suit or a bomb shelter lined with lead since lead is known to absorb radiation. But if these are not available, your best option is to move to an underground dwelling like your basement or an underground subway. Some say enclosing yourself in an overturned bathtub or bank vault can be just as effective.

In addition, you can take potassium iodide or KI pills as prophylaxis against radioactive iodine to protect your thyroid. However, this is not recommended unless there is a clear risk of radioactive iodine exposure. Studies also suggest that a diet of sea salt, seaweeds, and whole grains is also helpful in reducing radiation levels in the body since these foods have components that bind radioactive elements. It is advised that refined, fatty, and sweet foods like meat, dairy, and soda should be avoided.


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