When it comes to radiation protection, fire and police chiefs often look to federal agencies for guidance. After all, radiological incidents such as a radiological dispersion device (a “dirty bomb”), have federal criminal import and would seemingly be handled by the federal authorities. The assumption is that pretty early on the feds will take ownership of the situation. In fact, among those first responders randomly polled, 100% (erroneously) believe that the federal authorities are the sole source of response to a local radiological event.
Yet there’s a time gap until the federal authorities come on the scene. A report released by the Department of Homeland Security titled, Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD) Response Guidance: The First 100 Minutes, addresses first responders’ duties as they handle the initial situation. It’s important to keep in mind that a “dirty bomb” contains conventional explosives in addition to the radiological material that can cause widespread devastation. According to the report, first responders must conduct lifesaving rescue operations, map radiation levels at different points on scene, and start evacuating the area during the first 100 minutes on the scene.
While the report recommends limits to the time on site, it’s hard to imagine firefighters turning away from trapped residents in a fire just because their operational allowed time has expired. It’s not in the nature of their training, which is predicated on saving lives and risking theirs. In all likelihood, they’ll selflessly continue working and therefore require the best protective equipment available to safeguard their lives.
Radiation Protection in an RDD Emergency
What personal protection equipment (PPE) will firefighters be wearing during their rescue missions?
According to the report, firefighters should wear their regular fire protection uniforms along with gloves, protective eyewear, and air-purifying respiratory masks to avoid inhaling radioactive particles. The air that they breathe will be clear, yet their bodies will remain exposed to penetrating and lethal gamma radiation. The report specifically recommends that firefighters not wear hazmat suits.
Until recently, it was an axiom that in a radiological catastrophe firefighters would go in to save lives – but rarely survive themselves. This was the case in the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe. Hazmat suits, which protect for biological and chemical agents and very low-energy alpha and beta radiation, can’t protect against destructive gamma radiation, which, at the doses expected in such an incident, causes Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS) (the main cause of death from radiation in such a catastrophe).
Yet a start-up technology company from Tel-Aviv, StemRad, has recently put this axiom into question. StemRad has found a way for firefighters and other first responders to enter into a gamma radiation environment in order to save lives and engage, mitigate and terminate a radiological event– and come out alive! This extraordinary proposition is a result of pioneering research that safeguards the pelvic area from radiation, thus protecting the body’s stem cells and self-healing properties. In effect, the company has developed the first personal protection equipment (PPE) that provides a first responder free physical movement through its ergonomic design, while protecting from the lethal effects of exposure to gamma radiation.
When you take the belt into your hands, it’s mind-boggling that such a manageable and simple piece of PPE can do what was previously considered impossible: provide effective radiation protection to our brave firefighters and other first responders. The StemRad radiation shield, the 360 Gamma, can easily be added to the protective clothing recommended by the Department of Homeland Security in its report (protective eyewear, respiratory masks, gloves, and regular uniform) to provide optimal radiation protection.
Selective Shielding – Tried and True
StemRad’s technology is based on research that shows that upon lethal exposure to gamma radiation the body can heal itself as long as a small percentage of stem cells survive. It has been tested in the U.S. Department of Energy’s PNNL lab and has been adapted for use to protect astronauts who will one day travel into deep space. NASA has entered into an agreement with StemRad through the Israel Space Agency and its partner Lockheed Martin, to use the gamma radiation shielding technology to safeguard astronauts from radiation in deep space. The StemRad “AstroRAd” is manifested on the planned EM-1 orbital moon mission scheduled for 2019; the stepping stone mission for NASA’s mission to Mars.
In our next installment, we will take a deeper dive into the current state of PPE available to first responders for radiation protection, as well as discuss how the principles of ALARA (As Low As Reasonably Achievable) cannot be fully achieved as federally mandated in the absence of the selective shielding technology now available.
For the latest media coverage of StemRad and its seminal technology for personal radiation shielding, see: