Exposure to high doses of ionizing radiation within a short time can cause radiation poisoning. There are both long-term and short-term effects of radiation poisoning, including death.
However, not all forms of radiation exposure cause radiation sickness. Also, radiation sickness is not necessarily fatal. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 provides a relevant point of reference.
A total of 28 firefighters and workers died from radiation poisoning at Chernobyl. About 100 others were diagnosed with radiation sickness. They all survived, however.
Is There A Cure For Radiation Exposure?
It is possible to cure the adverse effects of radiation exposure on the human body, which may take up to two years. The cure, however, depends on the dose of radiation exposure, its duration, and the part of the body that gets affected.
Radiation sickness or acute radiation syndrome (ARS) occurs when high doses of ionizing radiation enter the human body through breathing or exposed wounds. Radiation poisoning can affect the internal organs of the body, It can also damage our cells and tissues.
ARS can have three different forms, depending on the part of the body most exposed to radiation. Cardiovascular or central nervous system ARS is almost always fatal. It is, however, possible to cure gastrointestinal and hematopoietic or bone marrow ARS.
Symptoms of Radiation Sickness
Nausea and vomiting followed by diarrhea are the initial symptoms common to all forms of radiation sickness. Other symptoms are specific to the type of ARS a patient has.
Patients of cardiovascular/ central nervous system ARS may suffer from anxiety and disorientation during the primary stage known as the prodromal stage. The latent phase when the patient seems to improve is short.
There are tremors and convulsions in the final manifest stage, followed by coma and death.
Symptoms typical to gastrointestinal ARS include severe nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea leading to acute dehydration. Imbalance of electrolytes and reduction in plasma volume are common, too. Secondary infections can make the situation dangerous.
However, it is possible to cure this variation of ARS.
Hematopoietic or bone marrow ARS affects the blood cells. Common symptoms of this variety of radiation sickness include blood with vomit and stool, anorexia, fever, and malaise.
The real problem happens during the latent phase. Atrophy begins in the bone marrow, the lymph nodes, and the spleen. The Under-production of all types of blood cells is the consequence. That, in turn, leads to multiple blood-related disorders.
Severe hemorrhage is a possibility, which makes the situation life-threatening. But it is also possible to cure this variety of ARS.
For diagnosis, medical professionals use an instrument called a dosimeter to measure the absorbed dose. They also use radiation survey meters to locate the part of the body where radioactive materials accumulate.
Regular blood tests to notice any abnormality in the DNA of the blood or a decrease in the production of white blood cells is also necessary for effective diagnosis. A blood transfusion may be necessary to treat some ARS cases.
Medicines used to cure ARS are:
- Potassium Iodide
- Prussian Blue
Even when cured of radiation sickness, some health risks remain. Heightened chances of getting cancer later in life is an example.
How Much Radiation Is Dangerous?
Radioactivity is a natural phenomenon to which we remain exposed regularly. We even have radioactive elements inside our bodies. Medical imaging and some forms of cancer treatment also use radiation.
These examples indicate that radiation exposure is not dangerous per se. However, exposure to large doses of ionizing radiation can damage our cells, internal organs, and tissues. It can cause genetic mutations. It can even be fatal.
Analysis of the health records of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing survivors constitute the basis of medical knowledge about the dangers of radiation exposure. The Gray unit symbolized as Gy is the international standard for measuring doses of ionizing radiation.
Milisieverts (mSv) and microsieverts (µSv) are other measures for radiation doses.
According to internationally agreed standards,
- Exposure to 10 Gy or higher doses of ionizing radiation will cause death within hours.
- Exposure to 4-5 Gy of radiation will kill within 60 days.
- Exposure to doses in the range of 1.5-2 Gy or lower is usually not fatal.
- All forms of radiation exposure, however, increase the risk of cancer and other diseases later in life.
- According to an article in Reuters, cancer risk increases with exposure to 100 mSv or more ionizing radiation per year.
- An article in Harvard Health Publishing reports that cancer risk increased by 2,7-12% among patients receiving multiple CT scans in the range of 5-38 over 22 years.
The Moot Point
Medical science has some knowledge of the damage done to humans due to high dose radiation exposure.
However, we have limited knowledge about how dangerous sustained exposure to low doses of radiation over a long period can be. Experts recommend being aware of that gap and take suitable protection against any kind of radiation exposure to the extent possible.
Protection From Radiation Exposure
Certain professions involve higher vulnerability to continued exposure to low doses of radiation on a regular basis. Healthcare professionals involved in medical imaging, radiology, and nuclear medicines, and nuclear scientists and technicians, etc. are typical examples.
Border security personnel, law enforcement officers with specific responsibilities, and military personnel also run the risk of radiation exposure in case of any conflict, a terror attack, or attempts at smuggling radioactive materials across borders.
Given the limits of our knowledge about the long-term effects of such exposure on our bodies, detection of the exposure dose is a prudent step towards protection. To have radiation detectors for immediate detection of any changes in the dose level is critical.
Radiation detectors are instruments that help in identifying changes in the level of radiation present. Some sophisticated devices can also identify the source and type of radiation.
With personal radiation detectors, individuals in these professions can increase their chances of protection from sudden exposure to high doses of radiation.