Gaye Levy, Contributor
As a baby boomer, I grew up in the shadow the Cold War along with the proliferation of nuclear power. Back in the day, we called this the onset of the “Atomic Age” and it was something to be heralded with anticipation for a better world. But something happened along the way.
First, in 1979, there was nuclear meltdown at the Three Mile Island power plant in Pennsylvania. Supposedly there were no ill-effects from this incident. According to most government and regulatory officials, most of the radiation was contained and the actual release of radiation had negligible effects on the physical health of individuals or the environment. Whether your believe that or not, Three Mile Island was a wake-up up call regarding the safety of nuclear reactors.
This was followed by the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. The incident at Chernobyl resulted in an explosion and fire that released large quantities of radioactive contaminants into the atmosphere. These radioactive particles spread over much of Western USSR and Europe and it was bad. Really bad. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, over 200,0000 people are believed to have been relocated as a result of the accident. Reports of serious illness, though, have been vague and claim to show no direct correlation between their radiation exposure and an increase in other forms of cancer or disease.
Then in 2011, a massive tsunami severely damaged the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. And we still do not know for sure the impact of that incident on our health and the environment.
Even though the Fukushima tragedy happened just a year ago, news and updates about the real and true situation in Japan and the immediate area are not forthcoming. I just know that I would not stay there if that were my home.
So with all of this as background, you might say that I have a healthy fear of nuclear power and all that it entails, especially during these days of increased seismic activity coupled with the potential of renewed military conflicts and wars. Why bring this up now? A few weeks ago I was sent an infographic titled Surviving a Nuclear Holocaust with a request to spread the word.
Before I could do so, however, a number of my online colleagues had already posted the infographic. Rather than duplicate their efforts, I started thinking about the potential for a domestic nuclear incident – whether caused by mother nature or heaven-forbid, man made – and realized that in spite of all of my well-intentioned preparedness efforts, this was one area were I felt least ready and, thus, more fearful.
I decided to do a bit of research into how to better prepare for a nuclear Armageddon and was lucky enough to connect with Joy Thompson who, while not the creator of the infographic, did provide the source information. Joy was part of a three-person health physics investigatory team that worked on the immediate recovery operation following the Three Mile Island incident in 1979.
With her permission, I would like to share with you 15 practical ways to limit radiation exposure and radioactive contamination in your home, school or office.
Household Surfaces: Radioactive particles are much smaller than even the tiniest dust particles and cannot be seen. But if you assume that all the dust in your indoor environment is radioactive, careful cleanliness will protect you against excess exposure from unseen particles as well.
1. It can help to visualize a layer of invisible dust even when surfaces look clean and shiny. You will want to wash the walls, counter tops, furniture and appliance surfaces and floors regularly. Each time, use a clean mop and sponge, keep a good supply of paper towels, plastic grocery and trash bags, and sturdy trash containers with tight-fitting lids on hand.
Always wash from top to bottom, at least once a day. Dispose of all used mop heads, sponges and wipes in a trash container outside. Do not dry-dust or sweep or use a feather-type duster, as these will simply cause dust (and isotopes) to become airborne where they can be inhaled or settle onto food, etc.
Carpets, Rugs and Mats: Most people are aware that carpets, rugs and floor matting are dust-magnets. These cannot be washed daily in an effective manner, and often cannot be removed for the duration of the danger. Daily or twice daily vacuuming is recommended, but be careful of older vacuum cleaners that often have ‘leaks’ that stir more dust into the air than is sucked into the bag.
2. A good filtered vacuum is baseline requisite. Replace the filter regularly with the finest grain filter available for the unit, and wash it carefully after each use even if it doesn’t look dirty. Place all disposed filters and dust bags in tightly closed plastic grocery bags in a trash bag lined, closeable outdoor container. You do not want concentrated contaminates from cleaning to remain inside.
A water-filtered vacuum is preferable to a regular vacuum if you can get one. Good shop-vacs will work for this. Dispose of contaminated water down the toilet, then clean the toilet – including seat – thoroughly with fresh water. Also, a water-filtered or virus-rated air filtered indoor air purifier is a good idea to run several times a day following your cleaning regimen. This will remove dust that cleaning activity has caused to go airborne.
In The Kitchen: The danger of ingesting radioisotopes is significant, as internal contamination is 20 to 100 times more harmful than external exposures. Alpha and beta particle radiations do not present significant external exposures at all in low levels, but once they get into your body they can easily damage or destroy sensitive cells. Thus some careful kitchen habits will go a long way toward limiting internal exposures.
3. Always keep your pots, pans, plates, silverware and utensils in clean cabinets with doors/covers, drawers or covered containers such as Tupperware bins. Remove coverings carefully so as not to shake the dust they may have accumulated out into the air or onto previously clean surfaces.
4. Always rinse your cooking utensils, plates, silverware, glassware, etc. in clean – preferably filtered – water before using them. The best filters for the purpose use activated charcoal or reverse osmosis, as these are quite effective at trapping the most dangerous radioisotopes. Change the filter every two or three days during the entire course of the radiological emergency. Wrap used filters in tightly closed plastic grocery bags and keep them in the lined ‘hot trash’ container outdoors.
5. Be sure to rinse the outside of all food cans before opening (with a well-rinsed manual can opener). Wipe rinsed articles off with a paper towel and dispose of those in the same outdoor ‘hot trash’ container.
Coming and Going: Every time a human or pet comes into the indoors from the outdoors, they will be bringing contamination with them. Limiting this new source of contamination is important to limiting indoor exposures.
6. When you go outside, wear a set of coveralls or a duster over your clothes. Rubber boots over shoes is a good idea as well, especially if it is raining. Fallout contamination in rain can be 10-20 times higher than it is in clear weather. A pair of outdoor shoes is also recommended. None of these items should come inside, but should be left outdoors on a porch or landing, or confined to the entry area.
7. Shower every time you come indoors from having spent more than a few minutes outdoors. Always wash from top to bottom, and don’t ingest any of the wash water. Avoid breathing steam by using cool, lukewarm or just slightly warm water.
8. Obtain a supply of good quality dust masks to cover your mouth and nose, and always wear it when outdoors or traveling in your vehicle. A utility painter’s type mask is better than a flimsy medical type mask, available from hardware and home improvement stores. Or you may choose to use handkerchiefs if they are made of a tightly woven fabric. Fold it to provide more than one layer of cloth and cover mouth/nose as tightly as possible and still allow breathing.
General Air Flow: The “Shelter In Place” advisory we heard about for citizens outside the evacuation zone around Fukushima was intended to limit residents’ exposures to the radiation levels outdoors. It did not work very well due to public ignorance of the need to keep outdoor air and contamination out of indoor spaces, but the basic premise is sound if these listed methods are followed carefully, along with all other recommendations given here.
9. Seal all doors that open to the outside with duct tape. Use only one door for entering and exiting, preferably a door that enters into a semi-enclosed entry space, garage or ‘mud room’. Make that space into a “change over” area for protective outdoor clothing and footwear.
10. Windows should also be tightly closed (even if it’s nice outside) and sealed with duct tape for the duration of the emergency. Run your air conditioner at least 12 hours a day using the “recirculation” setting, even when you are not using the heat or cooling cycles. Get fine filters and change them daily. If using foam filters, these may be carefully washed and allowed to dry after changing, but fine-grain fiber dust filters that are disposed of as ‘hot trash’ after changing are better.
Do not use fans to blow outside air in, or run AC units on settings that draw outside air inside. Take steps to keep indoor air from being too dry. A semi-humid environment lets water vapor attach more particulate contamination and bring it down to floor level so it’s not floating around where you are breathing.
Pets and Short People: Dogs, cats and small children are much closer to the ground than upright adults and will tend to absorb more contamination. What may be a non-dangerous “extremity dose” to an adult walking with his or her head well above the ground can present a contamination danger to crawlers, toddlers and pets – especially dogs, who are prone to sniffing the ground regularly.
11. Always carry young children while outdoors or going to and from a vehicle. Avoid taking them out in the rain if at all possible, and do have them wear mask, hat and some kind of outer covering like a duster, blanket or coat. At home, try not to let children spend a lot time on the floor. If they must be on the floor, spread a clean sheet onto it first.
12. Keep pets indoors as much as possible for the duration. If you must let the animal outside for a period of time (keep it short), keep a wash tub near the door along with a supply of clean towels. Wash them down (top to bottom) before bringing them indoors, where you can towel them off. Keep a closed hamper in or just outdoors of your entry zone to receive used towels and outer clothing bound for the laundry.
Miscellaneous Precautions: There are a few additional precautions to keep in mind:
13. All family members (including pets) should sleep at least two feet above the floor for the duration of the emergency – or for as long as there are reports or suspicions of elevated radiation levels – to keep radioactive contamination well away from nose and mouth. You may have to let the dog sleep on the couch to accomplish this, so do cover your couch or other likely animal bed surfaces with clean sheets and change them daily.
14. Regular laundering of sheets, handkerchief masks, outdoor clothing, etc. should keep them fairly free of contamination. But wash the more contaminated items separately from regular laundry so as to avoid possible excess contamination to all your laundry. Do not hang clean laundry on an outdoor clothesline. Use your dryer (and clean the filter after every load, treat the lint as ‘hot trash’) or hang indoors overnight to dry.
15. Keep following all these procedures for several days or even a week or two after the “danger” appears to have passed, as residual radiation and contamination may still be in the environment. wrestling the kids out on the lawn or splashing around in mud puddles may be fun pastimes you must give up for a long while.
Depending on the isotopes present in the environment, the danger may persist for months or years. A radiation detector is handy for locating hot spots in and around your property, and these will tend to be found in normal drainage pathways such as eave gutters, underneath downspouts and along drainage ditches. If you find any of these, avoid them carefully until you or some official remediation outfit can effectively decontaminate them.
Do not attempt decontamination or remediation yourself unless you know what you’re doing and take serious precautions for your own safety. Remember, some common isotopes have long half-lives and will tend to concentrate to remain dangerous for centuries. If it looks like this is to be the situation where you live, it may be for the best to relocate farther from the source. This can be especially true for those who grow food or raise livestock on the land. Some nasty isotopes are readily up taken by food plants and concentrate in them to present internal hazards to all who consume them.
The Final Word
The pro-nuclear lobby, which includes many government and corporate officials, repeatedly claims that radiation exposure is harmless, yet scientists academic and medical experts have consistently insisted that there is no ‘safe’ level of exposure. One thing for sure that Fukushima has taught us is that officials from most any country are not trustworthy when it comes providing accurate and timely information about radiation levels or other health matters.
I don’t know about you, but I prefer to err on the side of caution and go with the scientists and the medical community, because after all, my life and safety may depend upon it. At the end of the day, it all boils down to who do you trust and who you believe.
Read other articles by Gaye Levy here.
Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!
Gaye Levy, the SurvivalWoman, grew up and attended school in the Greater Seattle area. After spending many years as an executive in the software industry, she started a specialized accounting practice offering contract CFO work to emerging high tech and service industries. She has now abandoned city life and moved to a serenely beautiful rural area on an island in NW Washington State. She lives and teaches the principles of a sustainable, self-reliant and stylish lifestyle through emergency preparation and disaster planning through her website at BackdoorSurvival.com. SurvivalWoman speaks her mind and delivers her message with optimism and grace, regardless of mayhem swirling around us.