Radiation Limits, Dirty Bombs, and Chaos

New Orleans, of course, showed up Washington’s unpreparedness for emergency response. But there’s an even far greater threat on the horizon: government radiation limits and the true risks from a "dirty bomb."

Realistic radiation health limits need to be properly understood by first responders and affected citizens. Otherwise, panic may do economic destruction far, far beyond the actual damage. Indeed, the government emergency site Ready.gov just tells people to get as far away as possible, without specifying distances. Texas-sized traffic gridlock would then paralyze whole cities. In actuality, a dirty bomb might contaminate only a few city blocks, while current EPA limits could entail shutting down square miles of central cities. After New Orleans, one can easily imagine soldiers going into people’s homes and offices, demanding that they leave to comply with government "danger" levels, while, like New Orleans, criminals stayed to loot the abandoned areas.

The Federation of American Scientists Web site declares, "Areas as large as tens of square miles could be contaminated at levels that exceed recommended civilian exposure limits. Since there are often no effective ways to decontaminate buildings that have been exposed at these levels, demolition may be the only practical solution. If such an event were to take place in a city like New York, it would result in losses of potentially trillions of dollars."

Similarly, a recent article in the National Journal, "Surviving a Nuclear Attack on Washington, D.C.," states, "Meeting the EPA standard for public safety – no more than 15 millirem of radiation exposure per year – would cost trillions of dollars for a midsized city, according to a study led by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. But the cost drops by half or more when the acceptable threshold is raised to 100 or, better, 500 millirem, which is still just 10 percent of the 5 rem level approved for nuclear reactor workers." The study refers to an actual nuclear bomb, but confirms the catastrophically low EPA thresholds. The author has little faith in government response. He warns, "Plan to be completely on your own."

Add to this the unrealistic limitations for first responders. These might be terrified and run away or at best be handicapped by unnecessary, ponderous anti-radiation suits. Some are subject to OSHA rules that mirror the EPA limits, and any authority or property owner who ignored them might later be sued for liability damages by their employees. All of this together makes for a possibly unimaginable economic catastrophe from just a small dirty bomb. America needs immediate emergency modification of these rules.

There are some variations in different state responses. Washington State’s regulations, for example, allow 5 rem (50 mSv) as the accepted exposure limit for emergency responders. Exceeding 5 rem requires a review and approval of the state health officer. The state then allows exposure up to 25 rem for life saving and higher for volunteers "who understand the risks." Other responders (in New Orleans, for example) are told to leave the area at over 10 rems.

Exposure Limits Should Be Far Higher

Scientists are now learning that humans can absorb much higher radiation limits than formerly supposed. There is accumulating evidence that radiation, within limits, even increases life spans and health. In Chernobyl, for example, the latest UN report [.pdf] describes how radiation harm was far less than predicted. According to the 600-page report (shorter version [.pdf]), the accident caused fewer than 50 deaths, most of them among emergency workers who died in the first months after the 1986 disaster. Early estimates of deaths were in the thousands. An increase in thyroid cancer in children did result, but only nine children died from it. Ninety-nine percent of the 4,000 children who developed the illness have already survived for 20 years. The report describes the 20-mile exclusion zone around the reactor as abounding in animal life, full of wolves, elk, wild boars, eagles, etc. The World Health Organization’s summary also states, "No evidence or likelihood of decreased fertility among the affected population has been found, nor has there been any evidence of congenital malformations."

Environmental journalist Michael Fumento has reported how the European public was terrified with reports of 15,000-30,000 people dying and women as far away as Italy having abortions in fear of radiation. Out of 5 million people who received "excess" radiation, 4,000 are now estimated to be at risk for premature cancer, and even that number is an estimate lacking proof.

Similarly, after the Three Mile Island panic, no one died, and nearby residents were exposed to more radiation from the granite in the Senate Office Building where they testified than they had received near the accident.

Doctors for Disaster Preparedness (DDP) offers a most informative Web site with medical references. Its newsletter, Civil Defense Perspectives (CDP), recently warned that "the government is ‘protecting’ Americans with extremely costly measures against non-threats–-while leaving them totally vulnerable to the really big threats."

The July 2000 CDP described"radiation denial," in both its good and bad aspects. Some examples:

"The EPA and the radiation protection industry remain committed to the Linear No Threshold theory – it being necessary for their agenda or livelihood. LNT defenders rely on studies and methods that Dr. Luckey places in 19 categories such as the following: ignoring health benefits, lumping data to eliminate dose-response information, misrepresenting data, omitting data, using single-tailed statistics, using the median instead of the mean, blocking publication, extrapolating from cells to intact organisms, using old animals for growth studies, and leaving out the low-dose category. …

"Nuclear Workers. Based on more than 7 million person-years of experience in the U.S., Britain, and Canada, low-dose radiation decreased cancer death rates by 52 percent."

What Are the Realistic Limits?

Dr. Jane Orient, director of DDP, provided me with a short, rough estimate, noting that there are two important factors, the amount and the time exposed.

"100 rems over 100 days might not be harmful at all. Chronic exposures to levels much higher than background have actually been associated with improved longevity. One can have a scientific debate about the shape of the dose-response curve, but after a nuclear explosion, the issue is taking action to reduce the immediate casualties."

(A detailed explanation of radiation limits and damage levels can be found here [.pdf].)

There are other potential problems with first responders. As CDP explains,

"Radiation monitoring instruments, calibrated in microrads/hr., reflect concerns about very low levels of radiation. The highest dosage measurable by many instruments carried by first responders is 15 mrem/hr. These would be off-scale and worse than useless in a nuclear attack."

As concerns the risk of cancer, Dr. Orient cited an article from the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, “Is Chronic Radiation an Effective Prophylaxis Against Cancer?,” which indicates the opposite, that low doses may help prevent cancer.

Another excellent, short explanation of risks and treatment is the "Radiological Terrorism Fact Sheet – Dirty Bombs" [.pdf]. See also the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements reports.

Note also that the aforementioned National Journal article has excellent information about civil defense and survivability in the event of a real nuke in an American city. Even a Hiroshima-size attack on Washington on the ground (which would collapse every building within a half mile of the explosion) could be survived by those farther away from the blast zone, if they knew the rudimentary rules for seeking shelter, in particular from the fallout path during the first 24 hours (which falls mostly downwind, only 10-15 minutes after the explosion, allowing some time to seek shelter). The article notes that the radiation threat from nuke bombs dissipates quickly. Ninety percent is gone after seven hours, 99 percent in 49 hours. Fallout spreads according to the wind patterns, but citizens can protect themselves for the few hours necessary and then by disposing of outer clothing, washing, using a simple breathing mask to keep alpha particles out of the lungs, etc.

What really needs to be done is to explain to Americans how to protect themselves from radiation, specifically by sealing rooms and staying in place rather than panicking and trying to leave town. Most Americans are ignorant about radiation, and politicians want to "show that they care" by establishing the lowest limits. But the new threat of dirty bombs makes it vital that the government and the media tell the truth, before the reaction to an attack causes needless panic, waste, and chaos.

Author: Jon Basil Utley

Jon Basil Utley is associate publisher of The American Conservative. He was a foreign correspondent in South America for the Journal of Commerce and Knight Ridder newspapers and former associate editor of The Times of the Americas. He is a writer and adviser for Antiwar.com and edits a blog, The Military Industrial Congressional Complex.