Radiological threatsHomeland Security for Radiological and Nuclear Threats

Published 29 March 2021

Radiation exposure events are complicated: there is a variety of radiation sources, and since radiation is invisible, and its effect may not always be immediately apparent, first responders and emergency services must prepare for a “worried well” of people requiring attention: individuals who do not have other physical injuries but are concerned about whether they have received a radiation exposure.

Mary Sproull, a biologist in the Radiation Oncology Branch of the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and a Biodefense Ph.D. candidate, discusses the current state of homeland security for radiological and nuclear threats, and highlights the areas in need of improvement.

Sproull lists the many available guidelines for emergency response, the organizations which provide guidance on emergency management of radiation events, and other resources for radiation injury. Pandora Report notes that Radiation exposure comes in a variety of forms – external and internal exposure to a radioactive isotope or external exposure to ionizing radiation energy – so Sproull writes that the “greatest operational challenge of a radiological or nuclear event is diagnosing radiation injury.”

Radiation is invisible to the naked eye, so a radiation event may result in a sizeable population of “worried well,” defined as individuals who do not have other physical injuries but are concerned about whether they have received a radiation exposure. This may overwhelm available medical resources. In response to this operational challenge, there has been support for the development of new radiation biodosimetry diagnostics, which “estimate the dose of radiation a person has received” and are “used both for population screening to assure the worried well and to support existing triage algorithms.”

Several of these diagnostics are expected to be added to the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS).

Additionally, several radiation-specific medical countermeasures have been granted Food and Drug Administration (FDA) licensure for radiation injury treatment and have already been added to the SNS.

Sproull says  that despite these achievements in preparedness for large scale emergencies involving radiation exposure, there still exist important areas in need of improvement: “capacity to manage burn victims and the overall willingness of first responders and other medical personnel to work with patients who have been either exposed and/or contaminated with radiation or radioactive materials.”