Dirty Bomb

English Version | Español Versión

What is a dirty bomb?

A dirty bomb, or radiological dispersion device, is a bomb that combines conventional explosives, such as dynamite, with radioactive materials. When a dirty bomb explodes it spreads some radioactive material and contaminates the area around the explosion. The concern is that terrorists may use a dirty bomb to cause fear and panic. A dirty bomb is not a nuclear weapon and does not produce an atomic explosion.

What are the health effects of a dirty bomb?

The primary danger from a dirty bomb is that injuries may result from the blast itself. The explosion may also release some radioactive material. While people could be contaminated outside or inside of the body, it is not likely that enough radiation will be present in a dirty bomb to cause illness.

What should people do following an explosion?

People cannot see, smell, feel or taste radiation. People present at the scene of an explosion will not know whether radioactive materials were involved. Therefore, people who are not too severely injured by the initial blast should take the following steps:

  • Leave the immediate area after the explosion to put some distance between yourself and the explosive material. Remain calm and wait for instructions from emergency responders.
  • If possible go inside the nearest safe building. Staying inside will reduce exposure to radioactive material that may be in the area.
  • Emergency personnel will determine if radiation is involved and advise you about what to do. You may be asked to remove your clothes and take a shower to remove any possible contamination.

Following these steps can also help reduce the chance of injury from other dangerous materials that might have been present in the blast.

Can people take potassium iodine (KI) or other drugs to protect themselves from a dirty bomb?

Drugs are not available to protect a person from most radioactive materials. Potassium iodide, also called KI, only protects the thyroid gland from exposure to radioactive iodine, which could lead to thyroid cancer years after exposure. Since radioactive iodine is not likely to be used in a dirty bomb, KI will not be helpful.

Where can I find additional information about dirty bombs?

More information about dirty bombs can be found through the Virginia Department of Health atwww.vdh.virginia.gov/oep/Agents/Radiation, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention atwww.bt.cdc.gov/radiation/dirtybombs.asp, or the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission at www.nrc.gov/what-we-do/emerg-preparedness/respond-to-emerg/resp-dirty-bomb.html.