Author: Jai Hao Wu
Editors: Hwi-On Lee, Jaylen Peng
Artist: Carys Chen
What is nuclear poisoning? Nuclear poisoning refers to the harmful effects caused by exposure to radiation emitted by nuclear material from both naturally occurring and man-made sources. This exposure can occur through various means, including direct contact with radioactive material and exposure to contaminated air, water, or food. Nuclear poisoning is a severe public health issue, as it can cause various adverse health effects, including cancer, genetic mutations, and other conditions that can permanently damage a person’s health.
One of the most significant sources of nuclear poisoning is nuclear power plants. Although these facilities are designed to be safe, accidents and leaks can occur, which can release radioactive material into the environment. The most well-known example is the Chernobyl disaster from 1986. The explosion and subsequent fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant released a large amount of radioactive material into the environment, causing widespread contamination and detrimental health problems for residents. Nearly 40 years later, the effects of the disaster still leave the area uninhabitable.
Exposure to nuclear radiation can severely impact the human body depending on the level and duration of exposure. Acute radiation syndrome, which occurs when a person is exposed to high levels of radiation for a short period of time, can cause immediate symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and skin burns. The molecular reasoning behind these effects lie in the physics of ionizing radiation and its effects on cells. Radiation from the waste of nuclear power plants like uranium or plutonium has enough energy to strip electrons off the atoms and molecules it interacts with, causing it to become an ion. Hence, the name, ionizing radiation. In addition to generating heat, the removal of electrons breaks chemical bonds. The disruption of chemical bonds leads to the formation of radicals. When a beta particle, a high-energy electron, passes through a cell, it releases its energy along its path by interacting with the electrons of nearby molecules. The released energy comes from the electrons in the inner orbits, making the atoms very unstable. The unstable atoms, known as radicals, are highly reactive. This impacts the cells in your body in different ways: radiation passes through the cell without damaging it; radiation damages the DNA, but the DNA can repair itself. However, radiation can prevent DNA from replicating properly, which kills cells over time since they cannot produce more cells.
DNA single-strand breaks (SSBs) are the most common type of DNA damage, occurring more than 10,000 times per mammalian cell daily. If left unrepaired by the cell, it compromises DNA replication, transcription, and translation, leading to an unstable genome. SSBs have been associated with cancer and neurodegenerative disorders. DNA double-stranded breaks (DSBs) are one of the most deleterious types of DNA lesions. DSBs form due to exposure to radiation and cause deletions of DNA sequences, loss of heterozygosity, and chromosomal rearrangements that can result in cell death and, eventually, carcinogenesis.
Protection against radiation is paramount. There are several components to reduce exposure to radiation: time, distance, and shielding. Reducing the amount of time exposed to a radiation source reduces the dose received and lessens the effect of the radiation. The further the distance away from the source, the smaller the dosage. Finally, a barrier like lead, concrete, or water can protect against gamma rays and X-rays.
There are several treatments for radiation exposure, including potassium iodide, prussian blue, and Diethylenetriamine pentaacetate (DTPA). Non-radioactive iodine is usually used to regulate the thyroid gland. When exposed to radiation, your thyroid can absorb radioactive iodine, which destroys the cell in the gland itself. Potassium iodide is used to “take up space” to lessen the absorption of radioactive iodine in your body. Prussian blue is a pill that can help remove radioactive cesium and thallium from people’s bodies. Prussian blue works by trapping radioactive cesium and thallium in the intestines and keeps them from being absorbed by the body. Due to lack of absorption, the radioactive materials move through the intestines and are eventually excreted from the body via bowel movements. Prussian blue reduces the biological half-life of cesium from 110 days to 20 days. A biological half-life is the time it takes for the radioactive material to leave the body, thus decreasing its harm. Due to its decreased time in the body, the potential effects of its exposure are tremendously reduced. Prussian blue is administered as a 500 mg pill for patients to swallow. DTPA comes in two forms: Calcium-DTPA and Zinc-DTPA. Both can bind to radioactive plutonium, americium, and curium. DTPA binds to these radioactive materials and then helps it pass from the body via urine. DTPA works best when given shortly after exposure, as its effectiveness decreases after 24 hours. However, it still functions to remove radioactive materials from the body. DTPA is injected directly into the vein in the arm or dripped into a vein from a bag. However, if the exposure is via inhalation, DTPA mist is breathed into the lungs.
In conclusion, nuclear poisoning is a troublesome and challenging problem to solve, as most measures are taken to prevent it instead of to cure it, and the only “cures” are to minimize the effects in hopes that your body will naturally recover. However, the good news is that you will most likely not be exposed to lethal doses of radiation. X-rays and other radioisotopes give benefits that outweigh the consequences of radiation the body receives. As a result, radiation can be used positively, but it is still dangerous to handle—thus, one should immediately warn authorities and quarantine if exposed to a large dose.
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