Radiation sickness is caused by a harmful level of exposure to radioactive materials. It encompasses any negative physical side effects resulting from ionizing radiation exposure. That last point is important because there are two types of radiation: non-ionizing and ionizing.
- Non-ionizing radiation is a product of the environment. We are exposed to it through light waves, radio waves, microwaves and radar. In most cases, other than a sunburn or sun poisoning, you will never encounter any debilitating symptoms or side effects from exposure to non-ionizing radiation.
- Ionizing radiation, on the other hand, is serious business. This is the stuff that nuclear power plants use to generate energy, the type that is used in nuclear weapons, hospital and dental x-rays, the gamma rays found in outer space, as well as various forms of particle bombardment, which is used for medical treatment, testing, manufacturing and industrial purposes, and so on.
If you work in an industry that uses ionizing radiation, you must remain diligent about radiation protection and shielding so you can avoid the devastating effects of radiation sickness, or illness.
Why is Ionizing Radiation So Dangerous?
In the sense of the harm it can do, ionizing radiation is dangerous because it actually disrupts chemical bonds. When this happens to a human or animal body, the exposure to radiation destroys living tissues, including DNA. However, radiation is also dangerous because in radioactive working environments, it can’t really be perceived with the five human senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste or touch. Rather, humans can be exposed to low- to mid-levels of radiation and remain oblivious until radiation sickness sets in.
In some cases, if the radiation exposure is acute – meaning you experience a very large dose of radiation in a short amount of time – signs of radiation sickness are immediate (think nuclear bomb blast or those closest to a nuclear power plant meltdown). In other cases, the exposure is low-grade, over a long period of time (chronic radiation exposure), which can mean the effects do not manifest until it is too late to do anything about it (think a mineworker who eventually develops cancer as the result of years working underground).
Finally, there are intentional exposures to radiation, such as those who choose radiation as a form of cancer or medical treatment. Most of the time, when the term radiation sickness – or illness – is used, it refers to more acute cases.
10 Signs of Radiation Sickness
Radiation exposure is measured using units called roentgens. To give you an example:
- Total body exposure of 100 roentgens/rad will cause radiation sickness.
- Total body exposure of 400 roentgens/rad will cause severe radiation sickness and death in roughly half of those exposed to it. Without immediate medical treatment, almost anyone exposed to this level of radiation will be dead within 30-days.
- Total body exposure of 100,000 roentgens/rad almost always causes immediate unconsciousness and death within an hour of the event.
Since the illness is caused by cellular death, and a breakdown of the body’s tissues and systems, the symptoms and side effects are not all that surprising. Here are 10 of the most common:
- Bleeding from the nose, gums, mouth and rectum.
- Ulcers in the mouth, esophagus, stomach and rectum or open sores on the skin.
- Bloody stool.
- Severe skin burns, including blisters.
- A sloughing off of the skin.
- Nausea and vomiting, potentially vomiting blood.
- Hair loss.
- Fatigue, fainting or mental fogginess.
- Inflammation of exposed areas (redness, swelling, bleeding).
If you work around radiation and experience any of the following symptoms, you should notify your organization’s radiation safety officer immediately and/or call 9-1-1 and let them know you may be experiencing radiation illness. First-aid personnel can be exposed to harmful radiation exposure by their contact with you so it is imperative that proper precautions are taken.
Suspect Someone You Know May Have Radiation Sickness?
If the person is experiencing mild symptoms of radiation illness, call 9-1-1 or a healthcare provider and follow their instructions. If the reaction seems more severe, be very careful. Until the victim is completely decontaminated, they are radioactive and administering first-aid can put you at risk for radiation sickness yourself.
- Do not administer creams or ointments on affected areas.
- Remove yourself as far from the exposure source as possible.
- Get out of radioactive clothing as soon as you can.
- Call emergency professionals ASAP for further instructions.
The best way to prevent yourself and others from experiencing radiation sickness is to educate yourselves about the risks and best safety-practices for your particular industry. Also, implement proper radiation shielding and protective clothing to minimize the amount of exposure you encounter.
Contact Lancs Industries to learn more about radiation shielding products and solutions for your line of work.
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