Since the event of September 11, we have had an increased amount of calls from individuals wanting to be informed if a radiation event takes place. Radiation is a scary topic for most individuals, but some basic knowledge will help in determining what action to take when exposed to radiation in an emergency response situation.
The types of radiation encountered during such an event are alpha, beta, and gamma. Alpha and beta are particles and gamma is a ray/photon. A piece of paper can stop alpha and a few millimeters of aluminum foil can stop most betas. We say most beta energies because there are high energy betas that are more penetrable.
Most people consider alpha and beta not to be of a concern; however, these particles can be ingested or inhaled and cause damage to the body. There are high and low levels of gamma, but the primary concern with gamma radiation is the amount of time you are exposed to it.
There are two types of monitoring devices that are applicable in an emergency response to radiation. One is a rate meter/general purpose Geiger counter. This type of instrument shows the rate that the radiation is being received. The other is a dosimeter. A dosimeter shows the amount/dose being received.
When measuring radiation in an emergency response situation, it is good to have something to compare your readings to. Taking a background radiations level in your area before a radiation event, will help you determine if you have a radiation elevation and whether or not to stay in that location. Background radiation is naturally occurring radiation that is always present. It includes; high energy gamma rays from the sun and outer space and alpha, beta, gamma radiation emitted from elements in the earth. Using a rate meter, you can determine what your normal background is. It is up to the individual to decide what a safe radiation level is because it differs depending on the individual and their knowledge of radiation and its affects.
As an example; say your background level is 25 CPM (counts per minute) where you live. When you fly in an air plane at 30,000 feet your rate meter is getting 200 CPM for anywhere between 2 to 5 hours. That is 8 times what your normal background is on the ground, but it is for a limited amount of time. There are non-occupational dose limits set by the government which is 100 mR per year above background per year.
What we suggest for a good emergency response kit for radiation is a general purpose Geiger counter like the Monitor 4, a carbon fiber dosimeter such as the PEN200 and a Charger to reset the dosimeter. There are electronic dosimeters, however, if you are in the blast zone of a nuclear bomb the pulse of the bombs render most electronic inoperable but the carbon style dosimeters will still operate.
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