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Radiologic Threat Agents

Photo of radiation warning tape CDC's Division of Laboratory Sciences (DLS) and National Biomonitoring Program (NBP) also provide effective laboratory support for the public health response to radiologic emergencies or public health incidents involving the release of radiation.

Radiation is a form of energy that is naturally present all around us. Radiologic threat agents are radioactive materials or radiation released that have adverse health effects.

Radiation emergencies may be intentional or unintentional. Unintentional radiation emergencies include Nuclear Blast, Nuclear Reactor Accidents, and Transportation Accidents like a spill of radioactive material from a truck or train.

Intentional acts can include:

  • Contaminating food and water with radioactive material
  • Spreading radioactive material into the environment
    • Using conventional explosives (e.g., dynamite) – this is called a dirty bomb
    • Using wind currents or natural traffic patterns
  • Bombing or destroying a nuclear reactor
  • Causing nuclear material to spill while in transit
  • Exploding a nuclear weapon

Laboratory Response to Radiological Emergencies

One example of a radiological emergency is detonation of a "dirty bomb": a conventional explosive device that disperses radionuclides. Following such a radiological emergency, public health officials attempt to determine who has exposed, by what radiouclide, and the amount of exposure in each person.

A critical part of a radiological emergency response is to identify the number of exposed persons who need medical treatment and the type of medical treatment they require. The decision to provide medical treatment—and the type of medical treatment—requires quick and accurate identification of internal (i.e., inside the body) contamination.

CDC's Division of Laboratory Sciences (DLS) utilizes the Urine Radionuclide Screen (URS) to identify exposed persons and determine the level of exposure. URS is unique because it

  • Uses a small amount of urine from a single collection,
  • Measures hundreds of samples per day for various radionuclides,
  • Provides results within 24 hours for the first 100 samples
  • Identifies and quantifies radionuclides of public health concern.

These capabilities are not available anywhere else in the federal government.

Laboratory Response Network for Chemical Threats

CDC is developing a Radiological Laboratory Response Network (LRN-R) comprised of state public health laboratories with the equipment and trained personnel to provide surge capacity.

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