Radiation poisoning

Radiation poisoning, also called "radiation sickness", is a form of damage to organic tissue due to excessive exposure to ionizing radiation. The term is generally used to refer to acute problems caused by a large dosage of radiation in a short period. Many of the symptoms of radiation poisoning occur as ionizing radiation interferes with cell division. This interference causes particular problems for cells that normally divide rapidly, such as those lining the gastrointestinal tract.


Measuring radiation dosage

The rad is a unit of absorbed radiation dose defined in terms of the energy actually deposited in the tissue. One rad is an absorbed dose of 0.01 joules of energy per kilogram of tissue. The more recent SI unit is the gray, which is defined as 1 joule of deposited energy per kilogram of tissue. Thus one gray is equal to 100 rad.

To more accurately assess the risk of radiation, the absorbed dose energy in rad is multiplied by the relative biological effectiveness (RBE) of the radiation to get the biological dose equivalent in rems. Rem stands for "Rntgen equivalent man." In SI units, the absorbed dose energy in grays is multiplied by the same RBE to get a biological dose equivalent in sieverts (Sv). The sievert is equal to 100 rem.

The RBE is a "quality factor," often denoted by the letter Q, which assesses of the damage to tissue caused by a particular type and energy of radiation. For alpha particles Q may be as high as 20, so that one rad of alpha radiation is equivalent to 20 rem. The Q of neutron radiation depends on their energy. However, for beta particles, x-rays, and gamma rays, Q is taken as one, so that the rad and rem are equivalent for those radiation sources, as are the gray and sievert. See the sievert article for a more complete list of Q values.

Symptoms and Effects

The symptoms of radiation sickness become more serious (and the chance of survival decreases) as the dosage of radiation increases. Prolonged exposure to radiation can induce cancer as cell-cycle genes are corrupted. However, since tumors themselves grow by abnormally rapid cell division, the ability of radiation to disturb cell division is also used to treat cancer (see radiotherapy), and low levels of ionizing radiation have been shown to lower one's risk of cancer (see hormesis).

Radiation poisoning can result from accidental exposure to natural or industrial radiation sources. People working with radioactive materials often wear film "badges" or other dosimeters to monitor their total exposure to radiation. These devices are more useful than Geiger counters for determining biological effects, as they measure cumulative exposure over time, and are calibrated to change color or otherwise signal the user before exposure reaches unsafe levels.

Radiation caused illness and death after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in about 1% of those exposed who survived the initial explosions. The casualty rate due to radiation was higher in Hiroshima, because although Fat Man (the bomb used at Nagasaki) had a higher yield than Little Boy (the bomb used at Hiroshima), Fat Man was a plutonium weapon, which is actually much less radioactive than a uranium weapon of equal yield (except at the moment of critical mass). Both bombs were airbursted, minimizing nuclear fallout (which otherwise would have killed many more).

Radiation poisoning also continues to be a major concern after the Chernobyl reactor accident. Of the 100 million curies (4 exabecquerels) of radioactive material, the radioactive xenon-133 and iodine-131 Chernobyl released were initially the most dangerous. Due to their short half-lives they have now (2004) decayed, leaving the more long-lived caesium-137 (with a half-life of 30.07 years) and strontium-90 (with a half-life of 28.78 years) as main dangers. Thirty-one people died as an immediate result of the Chernobyl accident.

Table of exposure levels and symptoms

Dose-equivalents are presently stated in sieverts:

0.05–0.2 Sv

No symptoms. Potential for cancer and mutation of genetic material, according to the LNT model. This is disputed. (Note: see hormesis)

0.2–0.5 Sv

No noticeable symptoms. Number of erythrocytes decreases temporarily.

0.5–1 Sv

Mild radiation sickness with headache and increased risk of infection due to disruption of immunity cells. Temporary male sterility is possible.

1–2 Sv

Light radiation poisoning, 10% fatality after 30 days (LD 10/30). Typical symptoms include mild to moderate nausea (50% probability at 2 Sv), with occasional vomiting, beginning 3 to 6 hours after irradiation and lasting for up to one day. This is followed by a 10 to 14 day anastasis, after which light symptoms like general illness, anorexia and fatigue (50% probability at 2 Sv). The immune system is depressed, with convalescence extended and increased risk of infection. Temporary male sterility is common.

2–3 Sv

Severe radiation poisoning, 35% fatality after 30 days (LD 35/30). Nausea is common (100% at 3 Sv), with 50% risk of vomiting at 2.8 Sv. Symptoms onset at 1 to 6 hours after irradiation and last for 1 to 2 days. After that, there is a 7 to 14 day anastasis, after which the following symptoms appear: loss of hair all over the body (50% probability at 3 Sv), fatigue and general illness. There is a massive loss of leukocytes, greatly increasing the risk of infection. Permanent female sterility is possible. Convalescence takes one to several months.

3–4 Sv

Severe radiation poisoning, 50% fatality after 30 days (LD 50/30). Other symptoms are similar to the 2–3 Sv dose, with uncontrollable bleeding in the mouth, under the skin and in the kidneys (50% probability at 4 Sv) in the post-anastatic period.

4–6 Sv

Acute radiation poisoning, 60% fatality after 30 days (LD 60/30). Fatality increases from 60% at 4.5 Sv to 90% at 6 Sv (unless there is intense medical care). Symptoms start half an hour to two hours after irradiation and last for up to 2 days. After that, there is a 7 to 14 day anastasis, after which generally the same symptoms appear as with 3-4 Sv irradiation, with increased intensity. Female sterility is common at this point. Convalescence takes several months to a year. The primary causes of death (in general 2 to 12 weeks after irradiation) are infections and internal bleeding.

6–10 Sv

Acute radiation poisoning, 100% fatality after 14 days (LD 100/14). Survival depends on intense medical care. Bone marrow is nearly or completely destroyed, so a bone marrow transplantation is required. Gastric and intestinal tissue are severely damaged. Symptoms start 15 to 30 minutes after irradiation and last for up to 2 days. Subsequently, there is a 5 to 10 day anastasis, after which the person dies of infection or internal bleeding. Recovery would take several years and probably never be complete.

10–50 Sv

Acute radiation poisoning, 100% fatality after 7 days (LD 100/7). A dose this high leads to spontaneous symptoms after 5 to 30 minutes. After powerful fatigue and immediate nausea caused by direct activation of chemical receptors in the brain by the irradiation, there is a period of several days of comparable well-being, called the "walking ghost" phase. After that, cell death in the gastric and intestinal tissue, causing massive diarrhea, intestinal bleeding and loss of water, leads to water-electrolyte imbalance. Death sets in with delirium and coma due to breakdown of circulation. Death is inevitable; the only treatment that can be offered is pain therapy.

50–80 Sv

Immediate disorientation and coma in seconds or minutes. Death occurs after a few hours by total collapse of nervous system.

More than 80 Sv

U.S. military forces expect immediate death. A worker receiving 100 Sv in an accident at Wood River, Rhode Island, USA on 24 July 1964 survived for 49 hours after exposure, and an operator receiving 120 Sv to his upper body in an accident at Los Alamos, New Mexico, USA on 30 December 1958 survived for 36 hours.

See also

Radiation poisoning in fiction

  • Mick Jackson's 1984 made for TV movie Threads dealt with the consequences of a nuclear attack on England during the cold war era. The story follows two families and their future children at different stages of radiation poisoning and its aftermath.
  • Shohei Imamura's 1989 movie Black Rain (黒い雨; kuroi ame) deals with the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The title refers to the "black rain" of radioactive fallout that fell on Hiroshima after the bombing. It is based on the book of the same name by Ibuse Masuji.
  • In the television series 24, second season, a major character inhales a fatal amount of airborne plutonium. The effects on his health are shown on an hour-by-hour basis, over the course of a day.
  • In the Graphic novel 'When the Wind Blows' by Raymond Briggs, an elderly couple are exposed to fallout after a nuclear war. Much of the second half of the story deals with the effects of radiation poisioning on them and how they interpret what is happening to them. Oblivious to the true danger they are in, they put most of the symptoms they are suffering from down to shock and stress.
  • In the television series Stargate SG-1, the character Daniel Jackson is exposed to a massive dose of radiation (approximately 12sv) while disarming an experimental nuclear weapon on another planet. Allowed to return to his home planet on compassionate grounds, he quickly succumbs to the symptons of radiation poisioning, eventually only cheating death by ascending to a higher plane of existance.

Further reading

External Links

de:Strahlenkrankheit es:Envenenamiento por radiacin ja:被曝 pl:Choroba popromienna


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