Safety Guidelines: Decontamination of Radioactive Material

Key points

  • Everyone is exposed to non-harmful, low levels of radiation every day.
  • If you're exposed to high levels of radiation in an emergency, it could affect your health.
  • It's important to remove radioactive material from your body as soon as possible to lower your risk of harm.
Firefighter using a portable shower attached to a firetruck to decontaminate a person

How contamination occurs

We are exposed to normal, low levels of background radiation on a daily basis. These levels of radiation are not likely to cause human health effects.

If, however, a radiation emergency was to occur, there is a possibility that you may become contaminated with radioactive material. This could be harmful to your health.

Radiation contamination occurs when you have radioactive material on your skin or inside of your body. In a radiation emergency, if you become contaminated, decontamination is the best way to protect yourself and others.

Note: Radiation exposure differs from radiation contamination. For a person to be contaminated, radioactive material must be on or inside of his or her body. A person exposed to radiation is not necessarily contaminated with radioactive material. X-rays are an example of radiation exposure.

Steps to take

Decontamination explained

Contamination is a word used to describe unwanted radioactive materials on or inside the human body.

Removing radioactive material from a person, object, or place is called decontamination. It is important to remove radioactive material from your body as soon as possible. This will help to lower your risk of harm and reduce the chance of spreading contamination to others.

External Decontamination: Removing radioactive materials on your skin, hair, or clothing

You can remove radioactive materials if they are on your body (self-decontamination) or on someone else's body.

Person washes their face in the sink after being exposed to radioactive material.
You can wash your hands, face, and parts of your body that were uncovered at a sink or faucet. Use soap and plenty of water.
A person taking a shower after being exposed to radioactive material.
To decontaminate yourself, you can take a warm shower and gently wash yourself with lots of soap.

Internal Decontamination: Removing radioactive materials you swallow or inhale

Internal contamination occurs when people swallow or breathe in radioactive materials, or when radioactive materials enter the body through an open wound or are absorbed through the skin. In certain situations, radioactive materials can be removed from inside your body through the use of special medical treatments under the supervision of medical providers.