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Nuclear Radiation: Time Bombs in Our Bodies

Our bodies' fight against the damages nuclear radiation caused can take for months. Even the tiniest infection could have death as consequence.

"It is like Russian roulette!" That was the answer a German researcher on the subject of radiation gave three years ago when asked if it was save to eat the mushrooms that grew in the Bavarian forest and which effects the dose of absorbed nuclear radiation would have in the worst case. Even five years after the nuclear incident it is difficult to estimate the implications of the catastrophe on humans. According to experts the effects on the human body can vary.

The contaminated helicopters from the fire fighting at Chernobyl were never put into service again
T. Micke

There are two different types of damages from nuclear radiation. The first type concerned the fire fighters and helpers that were working close to the burning reactor mostly with helicopters - but also the people in the neighbouring villages. They were all exposed to a high amount of radiation.

The American doctor Robert Gale operated a dozen Chernobyl cases at Hospital 6 in Moscow: "Severe tissue damages are the result. The radiation syndrome appears within a few days. Nausea, headaches, fever and dizziness are the symptoms. Later on appear gastric and intestinal problems, internal bleedings and hair loss"

Depending on the intensity of the radiation millions of cells die within hours or days. If too much tissue of an organ is affected, the person dies. The battle between the body and the radioactive particles can take up to a few months.

It is very difficult to protect patients suffering from radiation sickness from harmless infections like colds or the flu because their immune system in weakened. A lot of Chernobyl victims can only be kept alive in sterile plastic tents.

Professor Dr. Tibor Szepesi, doctor at the General Hospital in Vienna: "We examined 321 patients that were exposed to a high level of radiation. Obviously the same amount of radiation can cause different body reactions. A dose that may only cause mild damage to one person may cause another to die. We think it depends on the state of health the person was before the accident, if they had stress or were nervous, if they were asleep or working at the time."

Dr. Peter Weish, member of the academy of sciences, used to work at the atomic research centre in Seibersdorf (Lower Austria). He explains which effect small amounts of radiation have on the human body: "You could compare nuclear radiation to a hail of tiny missiles. These missiles pierce through the cells and destroy essential parts of them like the chromosomes. Often the cells die off. The consequences aren't severe if only a few cells are affected. However if it does not die, the cell passes on faulty or incomplete information during its multiplication."

The consequences are tumours or even abnormalities of embryos. It can take years until such a cell has an effect - they are little time bombs in the human body.

Dr. Weish: "In my eyes determining a lower radiation limit for foodstuff is nonsense. Most consumers think that milk, fruit and vegetables aren't dangerous anymore just because the average measured values are below a certain threshold. Each and every dose is dangerous! Health-conscious people should have the possibility of informing themselves about the radiation doses of the food they consume."

How can you protect yourself against radiation during a nuclear accident?

Dr. Weish explains: "There are a few tricks that everybody should know. Sealing the apartment with adhesive tape and cover your mouth with a mask or a wet cloth. These two tricks should at least reduce the amount of radioactive dust that ends up in your lungs. It is also recommendable to listen to the weather forecast. You should get as little contact with rain as possible."

"You should often wash your clothes and also take showers frequently. Having a radiation gauge is useful. Like that you can check how safe your environment is. Most of the published measured data are average values. They don't give you information on what the situation is like in e.g. your own garden. "

"Sadly people forget quickly that foodstuff can be dangerous. After a nuclear disaster everything is turned around: fresh is bad, canned goods are good. Free-range eggs are bad, battery eggs are good. Local fruits are bad, fruits from South-Africa are good. And so on."

Iodine pills – the "Anti-nuclear pills"! A lot of people think that you can protect yourself from radiation by taking iodine pills after a nuclear accident. Dr. Weish: " Iodine pills are only a partial protection. They keep the thyroid gland that collects iodine from absorbing dangerous radioactive iodine."

Iodine pills are an over-the-counter-drug. In case of a nuclear accident in the surroundings of Austria the public health authority will announce how much and how long iodine pills should be taken on TV and radio.

How does the human body react on radiation?

How do human cells react to atomic rays?
Picture by AKH Wien
  • BRAIN – strong radiation destroys the sensitive cells of the brain. Late damages are mental retardation and other psychological illnesses. Smaller doses: hair loss and eye damages
  • THYROID GLAND – this organ is the first one to react on radioactivity. 100% of the radioactive iodine is absorbed. Late damage: cancer
  • LUNGS – radioactive dust is breathed in and stays in the lungs Late damage: cancer
  • BREASTS – Breast cancer can be caused by radiation, however only after 10-20 years
  • LIVER AND KIDNEYS – liver and kidney cancer can be caused by radioactive caesium
  • GONADS – radioactivity can cause mutation of genetic material. Damages are miscarriages and handicaps of the newborn child.
  • BONES – the bones react as sensitive on radioactive strontium as the thyroid gland on iodine. The nuclides are absorbed and remain in the bone tissue. The bone marrow that plays an important role in the production of blood is damaged.

< Read part 8 of the series: Radioactive beer and killer flies

© A report by Tobias Micke (27-04-91) – Contact