The use of radioactive material for energy generation, military purposes and medicine has become internationally prevalent over the past decades. While being inherently dangerous, the destructive potential of radioactive material is realized only when it is taken out of a controlled environment as may occur following an accidental or intentional nuclear reactor meltdown, a radiological ‘dirty’ bomb or even a nuclear detonation. These risks are fueled by the ongoing race of unstable regimes to obtain nuclear arms. Most worrisome is a scenario in which terrorists acquire or fabricate a nuclear weapon. Thus, there is an ever-growing risk of radiological catastrophe.
According to a report by the U.S. Government, if terrorists were to ground detonate a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb in downtown Washington D.C., the blast would kill approximately 15,000 people. Even more disturbing though is the resulting gamma radiation (Fig. 1) leading to the death of up to 190,000 civilians.
First we must understand the dangers. Ionizing radiation can be classified into two categories: photons (gamma radiation and x-rays) and particles (alpha and beta particles). Shielding the human body from gamma rays require large amounts of high-density material, in stark contrast to alpha particles that can be blocked by paper or skin, and beta particles that can be blocked by foil. Gamma rays are best blocked using materials possessing high atomic numbers and high density. That is why you get a lead apron when doing an X-ray at the dentist’s office.
After the catastrophe occurs, whether it was a city center terror attack or a nuclear facility accident, you might find yourself trying to get out of the irradiated zone as soon as possible. You had everything worked out in advance. You know exactly where to go and what do, you are prepared. While hazmat suits, respirators and potassium-iodide tablets help to protect from internal contamination of radioactive materials, what kind of equipment is available to protect you from the most lethal aspect of the catastrophe, the gamma radiation and its fundamental danger: Acute Radiation Syndrome?
Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS), also known as Radiation Sickness, is a serious illness that manifests itself when the human body receives a high dose of ionizing radiation over a short period of time (usually several hours). Many casualties of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb detonations in 1945, and many of the firefighters who first responded to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident in 1986, became ill with ARS according to the CDC. In Chernobyl, first-responders wore makeshift lead sheeting for protection. This type of shielding was inadequate for blocking gamma radiation.
The probability of survival of those inflicted with ARS decreases with escalating radiation dose. Most of the people who do not recover from ARS will die within a few weeks to a few months after exposure, with the primary cause of death being the destruction of the person’s bone marrow.
Upon exposure to radiation levels of up to 1000 cGy, most of the damage sustained is to the bone marrow tissue while the median lethal dose of radiation in the human population is around 400 cGy. Thus, protecting the bone marrow will provide a 2.5-fold increase in median lethal dose. That is why selective bone marrow shielding is now recommended by OECD/Nuclear Energy Agency as a means to protect emergency responders in severe accident management.
“While whole body shielding is inherently heavy, partial body shielding is lighter in weight and selectively shields tissues of increased radiosensitivity (i.e. bone marrow) with substantial amounts of shielding material to protect hematopoietic functions; therefore, potentially preventing the acute health effects of exposure to gamma radiation (i.e. Acute Radiation Syndrome -ARS).”
-Occupational Radiation Protection in Severe Accident Management
So, how can one be protected from gamma radiation while bugging out? StemRad, an Israeli startup, claims to provide the answer. Their product, the 360 Gamma (Fig.2), is designed to provide shielding to strategic concentrations of bone marrow without limiting mobility.
The design is an outcome of the need to protect what’s important. Bone marrow is spread out in the human body, but remarkably it is the hip region that contains 50% of this crucial tissue. So, the iliac bones of the hip are very attractive targets for protection. They have a high content of active bone marrow (bone marrow which produces blood cells), relatively small surface area to volume ratio and ideal for weight bearing. StemRad is backed by top scientists including three Nobel Laureates. Amongst their other projects, there is a radiation protection suit for astronauts being developed together with Lockheed Martin, so the scientific aspect of their work is sound.
The total weight of the 360 Gamma is around 30 pounds. I took it for a two hour hike, carrying some water and a small back pack with some snacks and basic equipment, and I found the weight is well-distributed, making it similar to wearing a good (although heavy when uphill climbing) hiking backpack. It is also compatible with any other personal protective equipment (PPE) you may already own such as hazmat suit or a respirator which I would also recommend (and don’t forget to take potassium-iodide tablets as well).
Aside from protecting bone marrow and reducing risk of radiation sickness, the belt-like design covers other sensitive organs in the vicinity like the colon, small intestine and in the case of females- the ovaries. Reduction in dose to these extremely radiosensitive tissues is beneficial in preventing radiation induced cancer even at low doses. Even after getting to safety, wearing the 360 Gamma while conducting activities outside of the shelter which result in protracted or intermittent radiation exposures will decrease incidence of cancers over the lifetimes of exposed individuals.
Avoiding going through irradiated areas is the sensible thing to do, both to avoid ARS caused by high dose gamma radiation and to reduce chance of cancer. However, we cannot know when or where a nuclear catastrophe or attack will occur. Having a 360 Gamma on-hand for each member of the family at home or in a vehicle along with other radiation counter-measures as part of a bug-out kit is the best way to be prepared for these situations and survive. This arms you with the state-of-the-art equipment to most safely shelter-in-place or evacuate to a safer location. In a SHTF scenario you don’t want to be stranded waiting for help that may or may not arrive.