What is Radiation Sickness?


Due to the recent tragedies in Japan and particularly the disaster at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant I’ve been asking myself a series of questions that many of you may be asking:

What is radiation poisoning/sickness exactly?  How much radiation does a person have to be exposed to to get ill? What are the symptoms? What are the treatments? Why was a nuclear power plant built in a freakin tsunami zone!?!?!?!?! (This last question is off topic and will not be discussed here – it just pisses me off.)

Radiation poisoning or sickness is a huge topic to cover so I’m going to break 

radiationthis down to basic elements.  First, let’s define radiation.

Radiation is how energy moves through a medium or space. Light waves are non-ionizing radiation, but nuclear particles are ionizing radiation, which means it has sufficient energy to ionize an atom.  What’s wrong with ionizing an atom?  Well, cells are made of atoms and ionizing radiation likes to knock around the electrons in an atom thus destabilizing them.  Destabilization causes changes in the cell, which is why radiation can result in cancer.

What causes radiation poisoning or sickness?

Acute radiation syndrome (ARS) results from being in close proximity to a nuclear fuel leak, meltdown, explosion, etc. (It’s extremely rare. You would hear about it on the news.) The brave workers trying to stabilize the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant are putting their lives on the line and are at risk for this syndrome.

How much radiation is too much?

Radiation exposure is measured on the “gray (Gy) scale.” For example the amount of radiation one area of the body absorbs during an x-ray is 0.1 Gy.  Signs and symptoms of radiation sickness occur when the entire body receives a dose of 1 Gy. Mild Exposure is 1-2 Gy, Moderate Exposure 2-6 Gy, Severe Exposure 6-8 Gy, and Very Severe Exposure 8-10 Gy or higher. Exposure to 6 Gy of radiation or higher are not treatable and will usually lead to death in 2 days to 2 weeks. [MayoClinic.com Radiation Sickness]

What are the symptoms of radiation sickness?nuclear1

“The severity of signs and symptoms of radiation sickness depends on how much radiation you've absorbed. How much you absorb depends on the strength of the radiated energy and the distance between you and the source of radiation.” – Mayo Clinic

The symptoms become more severe as you travel up the “gray scale.”  Symptoms start with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever and headache and advance to dizziness, disorientation, fatigue and a drop in blood cells called Hematopoietic syndrome. Hematopoietic syndrome results in infections (from a low white blood cell count), bleeding (low platelets), and anemia (low red blood cells).

Neurological problems, cancer, tumors, and genetic damage are stochastic (meaning random), and are not generally included in the term radiation sickness.

How do you treat radiation sickness?

Treatment of radiation sickness starts with decontamination by washing the body and getting rid of any clothing or items that might be contaminated.  Antibiotics and blood transfusions can help treat the low blood cell count. Depending on the type of radiation doctors can also administer potassium iodide, Prussian blue, or Diethylenetriamine pentaacetic acid (DTPA) all of which help to eliminate certain types of radiation from the body.  If the radiation dose was above 6 Gy then recovery is unlikely.

Nuclear energy is often pushed as a cure all for global warming because it releases no green house gas emission.  Nuclear industry lobbyists claim it’s an increasingly clean energy source. But after researching this article it’s clear to me that nuclear energy can also mean disease, destruction, and quick or slow but always-painful death.  So… now can we talk more seriously about solar power?

For other great stories, check out Celsias:

The Fundamentals of Nuclear Reactions

We're Killing The Bees We Depend on For Food

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  • Posted on March 26, 2011.

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