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Dirty Bomb FAQ's

The San Mateo County Area Office of Emergency Services Bureau is concerned that the biggest impact of a "dirty bomb" would be public panic, and has prepared a dirty bomb Q&A.

What is a dirty bomb?

A dirty bomb is an explosive device that combines radioactive material, such as radioactive waste, with readily available conventional explosives. The device is designed to kill or injure not through its explosive force, but rather by creating a zone of intense radiation. This would be difficult to achieve, however. Experts believe that few, if any terrorists have the knowledge to achieve this effect.

What are the effects of a dirty bomb?

Much depends on the type of explosives and type of radioactive materials used, as well as prevailing wind patterns. Injuries and fatalities would result from the explosion itself. The bomb would spread radiation, leaving an area contaminated for months. However, it is the psychological effect of spreading radiation that is difficult to estimate; the terrorists' goal is to spread fear and panic, and cause public hysteria. The San Mateo Area Office of Emergency Services believes that fear of radiation and dirty bombs can be ameliorated through public education.

What can I do in the event of an attack?

According to the National Council on Radiation Protection, people can reduce exposure by taking shelter in homes or other buildings until the radiation level falls. Ventilation systems using outside air should be turned off, and eating contaminated food should be avoided. Radioactive dust can be washed off the skin and contaminated clothing should be discarded to reduce external exposure.

Additionally, the National Institute of Health makes the following recommendations:

  • DO NOT remain in the exposed area.
  • DO NOT apply ointment to burned skin areas.
  • DO NOT remain in exposed clothing.
  • DO NOT minimize the potential danger - radiation exposure is dangerous.
  • DO NOT hesitate to seek emergency medical treatment.

Additionally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends time, distance and shielding to minimize radiation exposure to the body, thus limiting injuries and fatalities from exposure:

TIME: Most radioactivity loses its strength fairly quickly. Limiting the time spent near the source will reduce the amount of exposure.

DISTANCE: The more distance between you and the source of radiation, the less radiation you will receive.

SHIELDING: Heavy, dense materials between you and the source of the radiation will provide shielding and reduce exposure. Local officials could advise residents to remain indoors. Home or workplace walls could provide adequate shielding for a period of time.

What are the symptoms of radiation exposure?

Radiation sickness starts out with vague, flu-like symptoms. It can cause nausea, vomiting, weakness and lethargy.

For additional information of radiation exposure, please visit these web sites: