Can You Survive a Radioactive Zombie Apocalypse?
The final installment of our Three-part Series Discusses Decontamination and Medications in Case you are Exposed.
Originally published on TS Alan’s blog in May 2014.
Decontamination and Treatments
When the radioactive zombie apocalypse starts you are ready. You purchased your radiation detector and you’ve remembered to purchase two sets of CBNR gear for each family member, along with protective coverings for the supplies you are transporting. Hopefully, if things go the way you have planned, you will never have to get within 100 mile radius of any nuclear hot zone from the nuclear power plants that have failed.
But being the astute prepper/survivalist you know things don’t always go as planned, and even that alternate route to your bugout location is impassable, which leaves you with only one way to get to your safe location — and that is through a irradiated area. With any travel route during a worldwide doomsday scenario even the safest passage can have its dangers, but trekking through a hotspot is a whole other set of risks. Those who unwittingly travel through unprotected can suffer severe consequences, including a horrid, painful death, depending on length and intensity of exposure.
Even though you have all the gear to protect you, shit can happen. There is always a possibility that passage through the radiation field takes longer than estimated due to terrain conditions. Your vehicle could break down and force you to walk through an irradiated area, increasing exposure intensity and duration. Worse case scenario is that your suit gets torn, leaving you contaminated. Let’s face it. If your suit get breached from a radioactive zombie, you’ll be one of the undead most likely before you become ill from radiation contamination.
So what can you do to limit the effects of exposure? Well, it all depends on what type of exposure, length of the exposure, and the type of radiation you have been expose to. Bottom line is you will need to decontaminate. The type of decontamination depends on if it is internal or external.
Methods of External Decontamination
Ionizing radiation can damage DNA, RNA, and proteins directly, but more often the damage to these molecules is indirect, caused by highly reactive free radicals generated by radiation’s interaction with intracellular water molecules. Large doses of radiation can cause cell death, and lower doses may interfere with cellular proliferation. Damage to other cellular components can result in progressive tissue hypoplasia, atrophy, and eventually fibrosis.
Decontamination after radiation exposure is simpler than you may think. Disposing of outer wear and under garments, showering with soap and washing hair with shampoo. Forget what you’ve seen in the movies. Vigorous cleansing of the skin with a hard brush can be dangerous. This method can abrade or lacerate your skin causing easily managed external contamination to become internal.
If your CBRN suit (overgarment, gloves, boots) has been compromised then you’ll want to use chemical solutions for decontamination. Companies like Radiation Decontamination Solutions, LLC and Nukepills, Inc. make nuclear survival kits for the public with the chemical solutions you will need.
For treatment of wounds that are contaminated do not use chemical solutions, for these can cause extreme irritation to the afflicted area and can further damage the flesh. Instead, use Povidone-iodine (PVP-I) — known by the brand names Wokadine and Betadine — that is quite effective in cleansing and offers the additional protection of blocking the thyroid from any radioactive iodine absorption. Other effective cleansers are Hydrogen peroxide, Phisohex, or Dakins solution. But when unavailable soap and water can still be effective.
Most of your gear can be laundered or cleansed for re-use, but this would require a washing machine and cleansing agents for your clothing articles and a brush and cleansing agents for your gloves, mask, and boots. If this is not possible then it is best to dispose of all garments on your person, including your protective gear. Bury them, do not burn them for this will cause radiative particles to be released into the air. Also remember that the filters on your mask have a limited use, dispose and replace them when required.
Methods for Internal Decontamination
Internal contamination poses many problems, beginning with the type of radioactive isotope that has been absorbed into the body. A person who has ingested any radioactive matter should receive aluminum hydroxide or magnesium carbonate antacids to reduce absorption. If persistent nausea and vomiting follows, treat with granisetron or ondansetron. Then you would treat accordingly to the type of radioactive isotope exposure.
If your face mask as been compromised it is possible that a significant amount of material may be inhaled and deposit within the lungs. Alpha emitters that deposit their radiation doses locally may result in pulmonary fibrosis. You will need to clear the mucous membranes of the mouth and nasopharynx and the conjuctive of the radioactive contaminate, usually rinsed with saline (0,9% NaCI) or weak solutions of disinfectants such as 0.3 wt % potassium permanganate (KMnO₄) or 0.3 wt % boric acid.
If you have inhaled a heavy dose of radioactive particles, then bronchoalveolar lavage, a medical procedure in which a bronchoscope is passed through the mouth or nose into the lungs and fluid is squirted into the lungs and then retrieved, has been proposed as a means by which these contaminants may be removed.
Bronchial lavage, however, is not without complications itself. It may not result in complete removal of the contaminant and may cause significant irritation of the bronchial lining. Its use should be limited to situations where there are large amounts of inhaled contamination, and should only be done by a medical professional. If done incorrectly it could cause bronchial and/or lung damage and result in death.
A few types of Radioactive Isotopes you may come in contact with:
Iodine-131 & 129
Radioactive iodines are the most common of the isotopes, created primarily by fission of uranium and plutonium in nuclear reactors (I-131 & 129), and by plutonium (or uranium) in the detonation of nuclear weapons (I-129). In nuclear reactor fission it comprises nearly 3% of the total products of fission (by weight).
In contrast, non-radioactive iodine-127 (stable) is a key nutritional element needed for a healthy thyroid gland. The thyroid gland cannot tell the difference between stable and radioactive iodine. It will absorb both. Radioisotopes causes mutation and death in cells that it penetrates and the surrounding area, and is most notable for causing radiogenic thyroid cancer, non-cancerous growths and thyroiditis.
Radioactive iodine can disperse rapidly in air and water, and can enter the body by inhalation or ingestion. In the lungs, radioactive iodine is absorbed, passes into the blood stream, and collects in the thyroid. Ingested it is absorbed through the organs and concentrated by the thyroid gland.
The risk can be mitigated by taking doses of iodine supplements (potassium iodine – KI), raising the total amount of iodine in the body and, therefore, reducing uptake and retention in the face and chest and lowering the relative proportion of radioactive iodine. It is imperative treatment begin immediately to minimize or negate damage to the gland.
- metallic taste in your mouth.
- dry mouth.
- sore throat.
- neck pain/swelling.
- nausea or vomiting.
- constipation or diarrhea.
The FDA approved two different forms of KI (potassium iodide), tablets and liquid, that people can take by mouth after a radiation emergency involving radioactive iodine. In pill form, 130 mg every 24 hours is recommended for adults. For the oral liquid solution, each milliliter (mL) contains 65 mg of KI (potassium iodide).
The use of tetraglycine hydroperiodide (TGHP) water tablets used in portable water purification has also been determined as somewhat effective at reducing radioiodine uptake. In a 90 day trail, it was found that ingesting our 20 milligram TGHP water tablets a day, with each tablet releasing 8 milligrams (ppm) of free titratable iodine, it was found that the biological uptake of radioactive iodine in these human subjects dropped to, and remained at, a value of less than 2% the radioiodine uptake rate of that observed in control subjects who went fully exposed to radioiodine without treatment.
PVP-I, as mentioned earlier, also offers a minimal amount of protection. Iodine in this solution is absorbed through intact skin and wounds. PVP-I solution contains 5 mg of strength in 1 mL. However, the slow release of iodine from the PVP-I complex in the solution only minimizes radioiodine toxicity towards mammalian cells.
A comprehensive guide to I-131 exposure and its treatment can be found on the CDC website.
Cesium (radiocesium) is one of the more common fission products from the nuclear fission of uranium-235. Because it readily bonds with chlorides (salts), Cs-137 usually occurs as a crystalline powder rather than in its pure liquid form. However, since it is highly water-soluble, producing a water-soluble compound called caesium hydroxide, it can also find its way into water sources.
Cesium is readily absorbed in the GI tract. When ingested about over 80% is deposited in the muscle and in the bone. Skin contact can allow the beta radiation to pass through the epidermis to live dermal tissue where it becomes a major contributor to the radiation dose to the skin. Beta and gamma radiation may induce tissue damage and disruption of cellular function.
When cesium-137 enters the body through ingestion or inhalation, it is distributed fairly uniformly throughout the body with the highest concentration in the soft tissue; especially the muscles, while lower concentrations are found in bone and fat. It is eliminated through the urine.
External exposure to large amounts of Cs-137 can cause burns, acute radiation sickness, and even death. ECs-137 can increase the risk for cancer because of exposure to beta particles and high-energy gamma radiation.
Acute symptoms include:
- hair loss.
Compared to some other radionuclides, cesium-137 remains in the body for a relatively short time. However, it is almost 100% fatal within 60 days if untreated.
Ingestion or inhalation of cesium-137 can be treated with Prussian blue, which binds to the radioactive particles of cesium and thallium, reducing the amount of radiation that cells may absorb. However, this medication does not protect against external radiation absorption and acute radiation syndrome, but will help with what has been absorbed through the dermis.
Strontium is another isotope bi-product of nuclear fission of uranium, but is not quite as likely as caesium-137 to be released as a part of a nuclear reactor accident because it is much less volatile. However, Strontium-90 is potentially the most dangerous component of the radioactive fallout from a nuclear weapon.
90Sr is most often ingested from contaminated food or water. About 70–80% of the dose gets excreted. Virtually all remaining strontium-90 is deposited in bones, bone marrow and teeth, with the remaining 1% remaining in blood and soft tissues. Bone marrow is the most important source of red blood cells and a key indicator to their depletion is anemia, which causes excessive tiredness, blood that does not clot properly, and a low immune system to fight disease.
Because the human body absorbs radioactive strontium as if it were calcium, you can prevent absorption by taking a USP grade calcium supplement in amounts of 500 – 600 mg twice a day to help displace the radionuclide and enhance excretion through the kidneys. The body can absorb only about 500 milligrams of a calcium supplement at any one time.
Tritium is another form of ionizing radiation and exposure to 3H, (a radioactive isotope of hydrogen) increases the risk of developing cancer. However, because it emits very low energy radiation and leaves the body relatively quickly, tritium is one of the least dangerous radionuclides. It is also an uncommon bi-product of the nuclear fission of uranium-235, plutonium-239, and uranium-233.
3H primarily enters the body when people swallow tritiated water, which is colorless and odorless. It can also be inhaled in gaseous form or absorbed through the skin. Since this isotope is almost always found as water, it disperses quickly and is uniformly distributed throughout the anatomy, going directly into soft tissues and organs.
There is no medication for this type of contamination. Treatment consists of aggressive fluid replacement and diuresis. Caution should be taken to regularly monitor the electrolytes during this treatment.
Thallium is a bluish-white metal that turns gray on exposure to air. It can be absorbed into the body by inhalation, ingestion, and skin contact. Ingestion is most likely to be the primary route of exposure through contaminated water or food, though thallium compounds have a high aqueous solubility and are readily absorbed through the skin.
Adverse health effects from thallium are dose dependent, and skin and inhalation exposure will can cause the same health effects as ingestion, which are:
- transient nausea and vomiting, seen first, followed by
- painful sensations in the arms/hands and legs/feet within 1 to 5 days (sometimes more).
- rapid heart rate.
- unusual, painful, or burning sensations.
- muscle aches and weakness.
- inflammation of the mouth, lips, and gums.
- dry and crusty scaling of the skin.
Severe exposure can lead to:
- kidney damage.
- breakdown of red blood cells.
- respiratory failure.
Treatment for thallium-201 exposure is 20 g per day of Prussian blue taken orally. Hemodialysis and hemoperfusion are also used to remove thallium from the blood serum. At later stage of the treatment additional potassium is used to mobilize thallium from the tissue. if treatment is not started within 72 hours of ingesting the poison, damage to the patient’s nervous system may be permanent.
Greater detail on Thallium and its effects on the human anatomy can be found on the CDC website.
Medications for treatments
Prussian Blue is the common name of potassium ferric hexacyanoferrate. Radiogardase® is the brand name manufactured by HEYL Chem.-pharm. Fabrik GmbH & Co. KG, and is the only approved U.S. Food and Drug Administration medication to be safe and effective for treating patients over the age of two years known or suspected to be internally contaminated with Cesium-137, radioactive Thallium-201 and non-radioactive Thallium to increase their rates of elimination from the body and reduce the risk of death and major illness from radiation or poisoning.
Prussian blue works using a mechanism known as ion exchange. Cesium or thallium that have been absorbed into the body are removed by the liver and passed into the intestine and are then re-absorbed into the body (entero-hepatic circulation). Prussian blue works by trapping thallium and cesium in the intestine, so that they can be passed out of the body in the stool rather than be re-absorbed.
Recommended doses are ADULTS: 3 g orally 3 times daily and CHILDREN (age 2 to 12 years): 1 g orally 3 times daily.
More information on Radiogardase® can be found on the US Food & Drug Administration website.
A chelating agent is a substance whose molecules can form several bonds to a single metal ion. A chemical called diethylenetriamine pentaacetic acid (DTPA) binds to radioactive particles of plutonium, americium and curium.
Calcium-DTPA (pentetate calcium trisodium injection) and Zinc-DTPA (pentetate zinc trisodium injection) are both used for the treatment of internal contamination of the heavy metals americium, californium, curium or plutonium to increase the rates of elimination. These chelating agents are supplied as a clear, colorless, hyperosmolar solution for intravenous use.
However, in individuals whose internal contamination is only by inhalation, Ca-DTPA and Zn-DTPA can be given by nebulized inhalation as an alternative route of administration. Both should be diluted for nebulization at a 1:1 ratio with sterile water or saline.
Due to Ca-DTPA’s know association with depletion of endogenous (made inside the body and is not in the diet) trace metals (e.g., zinc, magnesium, manganese), only a single initial dose of Ca-DTPA is recommended. After which, if additional chelation therapy is needed, it is recommended that treatment be continued with Zn-DTPA.
Not all drugs are available to the public as over the counter medications. That is not to say that the ones controlled by hospitals and government agencies cannot be obtained without a prescription from overseas retailers. However, I caution against purchasing pharmaceuticals from foreign countries such as such as Africa, China, India, Russia, etc., for they are most likely fakes, expired or made from contaminated/inferior compounds.
If your savvy enough you can find what you need. But just remember: Think smart, shop wisely, stay vigilant, and be safe.