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
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
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
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
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
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
(A detailed explanation of radiation limits and damage levels can be found
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.