Radiologic Threat Agents Laboratory

Staying Ready for a Radiological Emergency

The Radiologic Threat Agents Laboratory supports public health responses to radiologic emergencies—or cases in which radioactive material is released into the environment.

Photo of scientists working in the lab

These emergencies may be intentional or unintentional. For instance, intentional can include someone purposely contaminating food and water with radioactive material. Unintentional can include nuclear reactor accidents.

Helping People at Risk of Contact

The Division of Laboratory Sciences (DLS) maintains 24/7 capability to quickly find people at risk of contact with harmful radiation. This could be as a result of radionuclide poisoning; a “dirty bomb”—a regular explosive device that spreads radionuclides; or other incident. DLS developed the Urine Radionuclide Screen, a way to identify people’s contact with alpha-, beta-, and gamma-emitting radionuclides that often cannot be detected by conventional means. With this process, DLS can screen more than 1,000 samples for above-normal amounts of radioactivity within 24 hours. The information helps public health officials determine when people are at risk, ensure effective treatment, and prevent additional harmful contact.

As an example, DLS used the Urine Radionuclide Screen to measure radiation exposures in federal workers returning to the United States from Japan after the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant radiation release. Test results showed low levels of radionuclides, posing no threat to health after the nuclear disaster.

Strengthening National Preparedness

DLS helps strengthen public health preparedness to counter threats of radiological or nuclear terrorism by actively participating in a pilot Radiological Lab Response Network. The group comprises state public health labs that have the equipment and trained personnel to provide vital surge capability during a large-scale emergency. DLS provides these labs with technical assistance and reference materials for method development and validation.