Nuclear Terrorism & Health Effects

What are the potential adverse health consequences from a terrorist nuclear attack?

The adverse health consequences of a terrorist nuclear attack vary according to the type of attack and the distance a person is from the attack. Potential terrorist attacks may include a small radioactive source with a limited range of impact or a nuclear detonation involving a wide area of impact.

In the event of a terrorist nuclear attack, people may experience two types of exposure from radioactive materials: external exposure and internal exposure.

  • External exposure occurs when a person comes in contact with radioactive material outside the body.
  • Internal exposure occurs when people eat food or breathe air that is contaminated with radioactive material.

Exposure to very large doses of external radiation may cause death within a few days or months. External exposure to lower doses of radiation and internal exposure from breathing or eating radioactive contaminated material may lead to an increased risk of developing cancer and other adverse health effects.

These adverse effects range from mild, such as skin reddening, to severe effects such as cancer and death, depending on the amount of radiation absorbed by the body (the dose), the type of radiation, the route of exposure, and the length of time of the exposure.

If there is a nuclear detonation, bodily injury or death may occur as a result of the blast itself or as a result of debris thrown from the blast. People may experience moderate to severe skin burns, depending on their distance from the blast site. Those who look directly at the blast could experience eye damage ranging from temporary blindness to severe retinal burns.

How can I protect my family and myself from a terrorist nuclear attack?

In the event of a terrorist nuclear attack, a national emergency-response plan would be activated and would include federal, state, and local agencies.

You should seek shelter in a stable building and listen to local radio or television stations for national emergency-alert information. Your local emergency-response organizations, police agencies, and public health facilities may be able to supply you with additional information.

As a general rule, you can reduce the potential exposure and subsequent health consequences by limiting your time near the radiation source, increasing your distance from the source, or keeping a physical barrier (such as the wall of a building) between you and the source.

Contact Information

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Updated on:  January 3, 2019