How much do you know about radiation? Would you eat an apple from Chernobyl? Are mutants real? What are the main sources of exposure in your daily life? And how could you treat yourself if you were suddenly exposed to huge levels of radiation?
How concerned should you be?
I once had to get a quick dental x-ray to prepare me for getting my wisdom teeth removed. It was the type of MRI where you stand in the weird padded semi-walled cylinder and bite down on bit while the scanning equipment whirs around your head and back. I asked the radiologist doing the scan if it was bad for me. He answered ‘Technically, yes. But it’s about the same as living and walking around a city of this size for three months.’
Background radiation: bananas, smoking, and spooning
Did you know that scientists measure radiation in units called banana-equivalent-doses? Bananas are minutely radioactive, and are used to represent a radiation dose of 0.1 micro Sievert. This isn’t really a formally adopted dose quantity, but it’s used by educators to demonstrate the relative threats of various radiation doses compared to background radiation levels.
Bananas owe their radioactivity to potassium, of which 0.012 percent is a naturally occurring radioactive isotope called potassium-40. Any healthy human is brimming with potassium too, so spooning someone for the night will give you dose of about 0.5 micro Sieverts, equivalent to eating half a banana. The dental X-ray I had is equivalent to eating 50 bananas in one sitting, or sleeping with 10 people. Smoking about one cigarette is equivalent to eating about 140 bananas, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. For an interesting comparison of different amounts of typical background doses compared to nuclear accidents, check out this fantastic XKCD diagram about radiation.
The EPA’s guidelines on protecting yourself from radiation are fairly grim. Limit duration of exposure, be as far away as possible, and shield yourself with lead, concrete, or a meter wall of water. If you’re suddenly exposed to a high dose of radiation though, chances are none of that advice is going to be helpful.
Off-the-shelf radiation cures: beer and coffee
There are two main types of harmful (ionizing) radiation that require two main types of prevention and cure. External radiation requires physical protection: varying strengths and varieties of external radiation can be stopped with sunblock and a wide-brimmed hat, a lead curtain, a radiation suit, or the concrete filo-pastry they install around nuclear melt-down sites.
Internal radiation is a bit scarier, and if you happen to be exposed to it, then putting on your hazmat suit and getting the hell out of dodge isn’t actually going to help. Radioactive particles such as beta particles are stopped by your skin, but can enter your body through the air you breathe, or contaminate water and food, to lodge inside your body and continue causing radiation exposure.
The best cure for internal radiation? Beer! The beta particles in your system enter your ‘body water’, causing widespread exposure and potentially DNA damage until they are flushed out. How do you flush them out? The same as anything else. Increase your fluid intake as much as possible, and drink a diuretic. Diuretics encourage your body to excrete extra liquid, and beer is a diuretic – the vast part of a hangover from a day of heavy drinking is actually caused by dehydration. If you don’t like beer, drink lots of water along with wine, tea, or coffee.
You’re wandering around the wasteland one day, when suddenly your personal Geiger counter goes crazy. Oh no, radiation exposure! But don’t worry: the US Department of Defense is here to help. Just inject a dose of Ex-Rad and you’re safe.
Since humans discovered the dangers of irradiation (which was unfortunately some decades after discovery of radioactive materials and X-rays), scientists have come up with a number of ways to prevent radiation, like protective lead curtains or suits. Until recently, there hasn’t been much that we can do for someone who has already ben exposed. When a radiation event occurs, the official advice is “Evacuate. Quickly. And maybe don’t have kids.”
Now, that’s about to change. Onconova Theraputics, funded and assisted by the Department of Defense, have created Ex-Rad, a new drug that improves your chances of survival if you’re hit by a typically lethal radiation dose.
You can use Ex-Rad either prior to or after exposure, either as a pill or in an injection. Ex-Rad has passed two separate phase-1 studies on humans to test its safety for consumption by healthy adults. In laboratory tests, mice were given a typically fatal amount of gamma rays, and the mice that had also been given Ex-Rad were more likely to survive.
The name, Ex-Rad, seems more than coincidentally close to the anti-radiation drug used in the Fallout franchise, called Rad-X. No one from Onconova or DOD has confirmed that though, nor have we heard much about the drug since 2011 and 2012. Who knows when you might be able to buy your very own packs of Ex-Rad to stash away?
Off the shelf potassium iodine tablets may be the best medicine available to the general public. We recommend everyone keep a stash of these on hand, and replace them every few years to make sure yours are potent. Below is our recommendation. But use caution, and follow the directions strictly! Using them incorrectly can be hazardous to your health.