The 1986 nuclear power plant explosion in Chernobyl hurled huge quantities of radioactive material in the air. In the minutes to years that followed, around 530,000 recovery operation workers, such as firefighters, the so-called “liquidators,” went to be with the extinguishing of the fires and the cleanup of the toxic mess.
These liquidators, who worked between 1987 and 1990, were exposed to high levels of radiation, average around 120 millisieverts (mSv), according to the World Health Organization. That is more than a thousand times more powerful than a normal chest X-ray , which delivers 0.1 mSv of radiation. And some of the first reactions were exposed to levels astronomically higher than that.
So, what happens to the human body when exposed to such high levels of radiation? [5 Weird Things You didn’t Know About Chernobyl]
It’s like walking into a giant, powerful X-ray machine to shoot radiation everywhere, said Dr. Lewis Nelson, chairman of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. With the exception of, in this case, most of the radiation consisted of a more harmful type of radiation than X-rays, the so-called gamma-rays. This radiation, passing through the body, is ionizing.
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This means that it removes electrons from the atoms in the body, molecules, the chemical bonds to break and damage of the tissues. Very high levels of ionizing radiation can cause “radiation sickness.”
In Chernobyl, 134 liquidators rapidly developed radiation sickness, and 28 of them died. These people were exposed to radiation as high as 8,000 to 16,000 mSv, or the equivalent of 80,000 to 160,000 chest X-rays, according to the World Health Organization.
Radiation sickness mainly manifests in the gastrointestinal tract and the bone marrow, Nelson said. Which areas of rapidly dividing cells, which means that in place of rolled up tightly and a bit more protected, the DNA unravelled, so it can be copied. That makes it more sensitive to the radiation (this is also the reason why radiation therapy works to target the cancer cells, which also quickly share).
Within a few hours of exposure, people with radiation sickness, the development of symptoms such as diarrhea and vomiting, Nelson said. When the cells can’t divide, the mucosa or the mucosa of the gastrointestinal tract also break downs, the letting go of the cells and the bacteria that live in the colon (such as in the stool) in the bloodstream.
This could even be a healthy person sick, Nelson said. But because the radiation is also the stop of the bone marrow production of infection-fighting white blood cells in the body can not withstand these infections. People who have radiation poisoning, therefore, a weakened immune system and often die of blood poisoning or sepsis, within a few days, ” he said.
High levels of radiation can also cause burns and blisters on the skin, which minutes to a few hours after the exposure and look just like a sunburn, Nelson said.
While the GI-tract symptoms and burns happen almost immediately to several hours after exposure to the radiation, the bone marrow, survives for a few days. This means that there is a latency period when the person may even appear to improve, prior to the commencement of the symptoms of sepsis.
The people who survived radiation sickness from Chernobyl took years to recover, and many of them have developed cataracts because the radiation damaged the eyes lenses, according to the World Health Organization.
A lower exposure
But much of the health focus on Chernobyl survivors has focused on the long-term consequences of the radiation exposure in these areas. The most important result for them is an increased risk of cancer.
“But don’t forget, the risk of cancer is something you see 10 years down the road, so you have to live for 10 years, to [that],” Nelson said. So the cancer risk is generally more of a concern for those who survived the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, but were exposed to lower levels of radiation.
The data on this risk is murky, with very approximate figures, but it is estimated that 270,000 people in the Ukraine, russia and belarus, which otherwise would not have developed cancer, the development of these diseases. This is mainly manifested as cancer of the thyroid gland, directly or indirectly caused by radioactive particles of iodine-131 released by the explosion.
The thyroid gland needs iodine for production of hormones to regulate our metabolism. But if it is not enough of the healthy, nonradioactive iodine found in many foods, it absorbs the radioactive iodine, and this can eventually lead to cancer of the thyroid gland.
This is the reason why in the HBO series “Chernobyl,” people take iodine pills; the filling of these stores of iodine in the thyroid gland prevents it from absorbing the radioactive iodine. These radioactive particles, which are also others such as cesium-137 in the body through contact with the skin or through the mouth and the nose. In Chernobyl, these particles were thrown into the air, carried by the wind and later fell back down in the surrounding areas, contaminated crops and water, and the people who ate them.
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Originally published on Live Science.