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Radiological Incident

What is a “dirty bomb?”
A dirty bomb, also known as a radiological dispersal device (RDD), is a regular bomb, such as dynamite, to which radioactive pellets or powder has been added.

Is a “dirty bomb” same as the nuclear bomb?
No. A dirty bomb can pose a serious threat to life, health and safety but it is far less destructive than a nuclear bomb. A nuclear bomb releases a huge amount of energy that produces a mushroom cloud. A dirty bomb cannot create a nuclear blast. It instead uses dynamite or other explosives to injure people and scatter radioactive dust and smoke.

What are the main dangers of a “dirty bomb?”
The main danger is from the explosion, which can cause serious injuries and property damage. People close to the bomb could suffer broken bones, burns, cuts, head injury, eye injuries from flying pieces of glass or metal, hearing damage or other harm.The radioactive materials used in a dirty bomb would probably not create enough radiation to cause immediate serious illness, except to those who are very close to the blast site. However, wind can spread the radioactive dust and smoke for several blocks from the explosion site. Inhaling the dust and smoke could harm your health. Because it is not possible to see, smell, feel or taste radiation, take immediate steps to protect yourself and your loved ones.

What is the level of danger from radiation?
Very low levels of radiation are not harmful. If you were more than a few hundred yards from the scene of the attack when it occurred, it is very unlikely that you were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.

What should I do to protect myself?
There are simple steps you can take to protect yourself. What to do depends on where you are located when the incident occurs -- outside, inside or on the road in a car.

If you are outside and near the incident:
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a cloth to reduce the risk of inhaling radioactive dust or smoke.
  • Don’t touch objects thrown off by an explosion. They might be radioactive.
  • Quickly go into a building where the walls and windows have not been damaged. To shield yourself from radiation that might be outside.
  • Once inside, take off your outer layer of clothing and seal it in a plastic bag. Put the cloth you used to cover your mouth in the bag, too. Removing outer clothes may get rid of up to 90% of radioactive dust.
  • 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. Do not use conditioners, however, because they may cause radioactive particles to bind to the proteins in your hair
  • Tune to the local radio or television news for more instructions.

If you are inside and near the incident:

  • If the walls and windows of the building are not damaged, stay in the building and do not leave.
  • To keep radioactive dust or powder from getting inside, shut all windows, outside doors and fireplace dampers. Turn off fans and heating and air-conditioning systems that bring in air from the outside. It is not necessary to put duct tape or plastic around doors or windows.
  • If the walls and windows of the building are damaged, go to an interior room and do not leave. If the building has been heavily damaged, quickly go into a building where the walls and windows are intact. If you must go outside, be sure to cover your nose and mouth with a cloth.
  • Once you are inside, take off your outer clothing and seal it in a plastic bag. Store the bag where others will not touch it.
  • Shower or wash with soap and water. Be sure to wash your hair. Washing will remove any remaining dust. Do not use conditioners, however, because they may cause radioactive particles to bind to the proteins in your hair.
  • Tune to local radio or television news for more instructions.

If you are in a car when the incident occurs:

  • Close the windows and vents and turn off the air conditioner and heater.
  • 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.

What should I do to protect my children and other family members?
If your children or family are with you, take the same actions to protect them that you would to protect yourself. If your children or other family members are in another home or building, they should stay there until you are told it is safe to travel. Do not go to join them until officials say it is safe to travel. Everybody is safest staying indoors. If your children are at school, they should stay there until it is safe to travel. Do not go to the school until officials say it is safe to travel. Schools have emergency plans and shelters and will keep children safe.

How do I protect my pets?
If you have pets outside, bring them inside if it can be done safely. Wash your pets with soap and water to remove any radioactive dust but do not shave your pets’ fur.

Should I evacuate the area?
The safest place to be is indoors. You will receive less radiation exposure if you stay inside. Listen to TV or the radio for instructions. If you are in a location that needs to be evacuated, you will be informed when it is safe to leave.

How will I know if I have been exposed to radiation?
People cannot see, smell, feel or taste radiation; so you may not know if you have been exposed. Police or firefighters will check for radiation by using special equipment to determine how much radiation is present and whether it poses any danger in your area. If you were outside and near the explosion, you may need to have your skin, hair or clothing checked for radiation. Listen to police or firefighters if they instruct you to be checked.

Low levels of radiation exposure (like those from a dirty bomb explosion) do not cause any symptoms. Higher levels of radiation exposure may produce symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and swelling and redness of the skin. If you develop any of these symptoms, you should contact your doctor, hospital or other sites recommended by authorities.

What should I do after an explosion?
In a case of a dirty bomb explosion, New York City will open Community Reception Centers (CRC) to check the public for radioactivity. Information on the locations of these centers will be provided.

What should I do if I think I have radiation dust or dirt on me?
After removing your clothing, place it in a plastic bag and seal with tape. Place this bag in another larger plastic bag and seal or tie shut. Place this bag away from your living area or outside of your house or apartment. Then take a warm shower (but do not scrub your skin), wash your hair (but don’t use conditioner because the radioactive particles may bind to the proteins in your hair) and change into clean clothes.

Should I wash my clothing?
No. Decontaminating clothing requires specialized laundries. Contaminated clothing should be placed in a double plastic bag, sealed and stored where others will not touch it.

Should I take medicine like potassium iodide or Prussian blue for the radiation?
Staff at the Community Reception Centers (CRCs) can determine if you need medicine. If you do, you will be told where to obtain it. Because there is always the risk of harmful side effects, you should never take medicine unless instructed to do so.

When should I go to the hospital?
You should go to the hospital if you were injured in the attack or if you have a medical condition (injury, illness, etc.) that would normally cause you to go. But first check if it is safe to travel.

You should not go to the hospital to be screened for contamination if you were not near the blast and are not otherwise sick or injured, unless instructed to do so. Authorities will inform the public about who should be screened for radioactive exposure and where to go for screening.

Will food and water supplies be safe?
Food and water supplies most likely will remain safe. Authorities will monitor food and water quality and will inform the public.

Can I eat the food in my home and drink water from the tap?
If contaminated dust entered your home, it can settle on anything exposed to the air, including unpackaged food or water. Do not consume water or food that was left out in the open.

Food in cans and other sealed containers will be safe to eat, but make sure that you rinse the outside of the container before opening it. You should also rinse your plates and silverware before using them. You can eat food that is in your refrigerator or freezer, Fruits that are peeled (bananas, oranges) also is safe to eat. But fruits and vegetables that are not normally peeled (apples, carrots) should be rinsed thoroughly before eating.

Drinking tap water is safe. You should rinse glasses before using them. Drinks in cans, bottles, juice boxes, cartons or other sealed containers are safe to drink.

How do I know if my home is contaminated?
City, state and federal agencies check for radiation on the ground and on buildings. They will then map the areas of the city with radiation contamination. If your apartment building or house is not in a contaminated area, it will be safe. If the building or house is in a contaminated area, you should assume it is contaminated with radiation. Workers using specialized equipment will check buildings for radiation.

I am in the radiation area. When will my building be checked?
It depends on the size of the radiation area and the number of workers available to conduct surveys. Information will be provided as soon as possible.

Will I have to permanently leave my home if radioactivity is found?
It will depend on the amount of radiation that is present. If it is necessary for you to leave, it will be to minimize your exposure to radiation. Government officials will notify you if you have to leave and when it is safe for you to return.

Is radiation exposure going to give me cancer one day?
Although radiation can cause cancer, it takes relatively high levels of exposure. If you were not at the scene of the attack, your radiation exposure is very likely less than what you would receive from a medical x-ray. Only those closest to the explosion site are likely to receive enough radiation to put them at risk for developing cancer. Health officials will monitor people affected by radiation for long-term health effects, including cancer.

Will radiation harm my unborn child?
Only women who were able to see and hear the explosion and who were exposed to dust or debris, or who were injured in the attack, are likely to have received enough radiation to harm an unborn child. If you don’t meet these conditions, your unborn child is not at risk, although you might want to visit a Community Reception Center for screening or contact your physician.

How Will I Cope?
A dirty bomb explosion in NYC can be very stressful, especially if it is large scale event. It can disrupt your everyday life and make you and those around you feel less safe. You may experience fear and uncertainty. Learning about stress and strategies to manage it can help you cope.

Prepare Today, Cope Better Tomorrow - Stress During Disasters provides basic information and practical advice on dealing with the stress and anxiety caused by disasters. It is available in seven languages.

If there is a RDD attack in the city and you feel overwhelmed and unable to cope, or if you are concerned about someone else, you can find help by calling 1-800 LIFENET. LIFENET is a free, confidential helpline for New York City residents, available 24/7, with trained staff ready to take your calls and offer advice: 1-800-LifeNet 1-800-543-3638 (English), 1-877-Ayudese 1-877-298-3373 (Spanish), 1-877-990-8585 (Chinese), 1-212-982-5284 (TTY).

Where can I get more information?
For more information about dirty bombs, visit:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)