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An accident at a research or medical facility that uses radiological materials or from a nuclear detonation (e.g., a terrorist's "dirty bomb") can cause harmful exposure to radiation. The resulting contamination can range from minor to life threatening, depending on the kind of material, the intensity of exposure, and the quality of emergency response.

In many ways, radiological releases resemble chemical spills. They are rarely deadly. Exposure to a lethal dose would require very large amounts of radioactive material at close range. Nevertheless, increased radiation can persist in the environment for years or even centuries at levels that can be very harmful. The time required for radioactive materials to decay and become inert varies widely.

In the event of body or skin contamination or any spill that you cannot readily manage, call 911 immediately.

Report the incident

If you discover a radioactive release on-campus, immediately alert the Virginia Tech Police Department by calling 911. If a potentially hazardous release occurs in a laboratory or at work at Virginia Tech, follow instructions from your supervisor and site-specific plans. Trained laboratory personnel are authorized to determine appropriate emergency response measures for their areas. The following is general advice for people who might be on their own.

In labs or at work at Virginia Tech, report all releases of radioactive material to your supervisor.

Small spill clean-up

People who are not authorized to work with radioactive materials should not attempt to clean up a spill. Radioactive materials workers should consult their department for detailed procedures about how to clean up a spill or to perform decontamination.

Skin and body contamination

  1. Remove contaminated clothing and seal it in a plastic bag. Put the plastic bag where others will not touch it, and keep it until authorities tell you what to do with it.
  2. Call 911.
  3. If possible, note the original meter reading and location of contamination.
  4. Wash skin with mild soap and lukewarm water for 2-3 minutes. Do not use hot water or harm the skin. Avoid abrasives, organic solvents, and highly alkaline soaps.
  5. Repeat washing until contamination is gone or until contamination cannot be reduced further without harm to the skin.
  6. Note the final count rate, and report the results to medical authorities.

Major spill or contamination in your facility at Virginia Tech

  • Warn people who are near the spill. Block off the area, and keep bystanders away.
  • Call 911.
  • If possible and only with appropriate training, contain the spill.
  • Assemble and survey all people who may have come in contact with the contamination or entered the contaminated area.
  • Follow instructions from medical authorities.

Explosion of a radioactive device or "dirty bomb"

If you are outside and there is an explosion or if your building has been damaged and authorities warn of a radiation release, cover your nose and mouth with a cloth to avoid breathing radioactive dust or smoke, and quickly go to a building that is stable, with walls and windows intact.

If you are already inside and your building is undamaged (walls and windows intact), stay where you are. Once the initial blast is over, radioactive materials can be spread in smoke and debris in the air. Once you are inside:

  • Close and lock all doors and windows. Close fireplace dampers.
  • Turn off fans, air conditioners, and forced-air heating units that bring in fresh air from the outside. Only use units to re-circulate air that is already in the building.
  • If possible, bring pets inside.
  • Stay near the center of the building, preferably an interior room. If there is a basement, go there.

If you are in a car when the incident happens. Close the windows and turn off the air conditioner, heater, and vents. Cover your nose and mouth with a cloth to avoid breathing radioactive dust or smoke. If you are close to your home, office, or a public building, go there immediately and go inside quickly. If you cannot get to your home or another building safely, pull over to the side of the road and stop in the safest place possible. If it is a hot or sunny day, try to stop under a bridge or in a shady spot. Turn off the engine and listen to the radio for instructions. Stay in the car until you are told it is safe to get back on the road.

If you think you have been exposed to radiation

  • As soon as possible once you are inside, take off your outer layer of clothing, and seal it in a plastic bag. Removing outer clothes may get rid of up to 90% of radioactive dust. Put the cloth you used to cover your mouth in the bag, too.
  • Put the plastic bag where others will not touch it, and keep it until authorities tell you what to do with it.
  • Shower or wash with soap and water. Be sure to wash your hair. Washing will remove any remaining dust.
  • If pets may have been exposed, wash them with soap and water, too.

Check broadcast news as it becomes available. Remember: To reduce your risks of exposure to radiation, think about time, distance, and shielding.

Time: Minimizing the length of time that you are exposed will reduce your risk of injury.

Distance: The farther you are away from the source of radiation (spill, blast, or fallout), the lower your exposure. Doubling the distance decreases your exposure by a factor of four.

Shielding: A barrier between yourself and radioactive materials can reduce your exposure. Depending on the type of radioactivity, effective shielding could be as thin as a piece of paper (for alpha radiation) or as thick as a lead-lined wall (for gamma radiation). In general, the denser, thicker, and heavier the shielding, the better.