Relative to contemporary lists of Things To Worry About, nuclear fallout seems almost quaint these days. But it never hurts to be prepared. As several recent and disturbing fashion trends have indicated, the 1980s can recur at any time.
In today's DNews special, Trace Dominguez digs through the isotopes of radioactive health concerns.
The basics: Whenever any nuclear device is detonated above ground, radioactive particles are dispersed into the atmosphere. When these particulates fall back to Earth, we get nuclear fallout.
Depending on how powerful the initial explosion was, radioactive particles can be carried great distances by wind. Like, really great distances: When the U.S. and other countries were testing nuclear devices willy-nilly in the 1950s and 1960s, the entire planet got covered with radioactive fallout. More on that in a bit.
As to the health concerns, the problem is that nuclear fallout contains radioactive heavy elements, which decay by sending out streams of high-energy particles over time. When those energized particles hit the DNA in our cells, they wreak biological havoc, causing cancers and other diseases.
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The trouble is that radioactive materials are infamously long-lived, and they get into everything. For example, according to the CDC, pretty much everyone living in U.S. between 1945 and 1963 ingested radioactive iodine-131 dispersed by nuclear testing in Nevada and other western states. Fallout particles from the explosions got trapped in moisture, rained down onto crops and soil, and entered the food chain. Iodine-131 even made its way into the milk supply, eventually.
Happily for the republic, the dispersed radioactive materials resulted in relatively low dosages per person. The higher the dosage of radioactive particles, the greater the risk, in that there's a better chance of cellular damage.
There's actually a weird upside to global dispersal of radioactive elements. For instance, the isotope plutonium-239 was first released into the Earth's atmosphere on July 16, 1945 -- a red-letter day in history. That particular isotope got scattered around the entire planet, and now scientists can use it as a marker for determining things like the melting rate of ice caps and glaciers from that date.
Check out Trace's report for more details on disaster preparedness, fallout shelters, and the efficacy thereof. Sweet dreams.
-- Glenn McDonald
CDC: Radioactive Fallout From Global Weapons Testing
PBS: Effects Of A Nuclear Explosion
Washington University School Of Dental Medicine: St. Louis Baby Tooth Survey, 1959-1970