Questions of Survival
Everything you always wanted to know about being afraid of terror, asked.
Q: What should you do if you've been exposed to a dirty bomb?
A: First, it's important to understand that a dirty bomb is not a weapon of mass destruction -- if you survive the explosion itself, you'll more than likely be fine. At first, you probably won't know whether what's just exploded is a dirty bomb -- essentially a conventional bomb surrounded by radioactive material. So it's important not to leave the scene, even if you're not injured; authorities in moon suits will come to you. A common misconception is that you should strip naked immediately. While you definitely want to destroy your clothes, waiting until you get to the hospital is perfectly okay. At the hospital, the first order of business is a body scan to confirm radiation. If it's present, doctors would wash your hair and body (and collect the suds to prevent contaminating the sewers), and fluids would be given to help flush the radioactive material out of your system.
Q: Should you stock up on potassium-iodide pills? And what do they do, anyway?
A: Radioactive iodine isotopes are dangerous because the thyroid has a spongelike ability to store them. Potassium-iodide pills saturate the thyroid with clean iodine, thereby blocking the intake of the bad stuff. Dirty bombs would probably be constructed with radioactive materials like cesium 137 and strontium 90 -- which are used in machines for everything from treating cancer to irradiating food -- not radioactive iodine of the kind that would likely be released during a nuclear explosion or a meltdown at a reactor. Although Westchester County has distributed free iodide pills to residents in case of an attack on the Indian Point nuclear plant, many experts stress the dangers of preventive doses of iodine. "You could have an adverse side effect to the pills," says Roger Hagengruber, a senior VP of national security and arms control at Sandia Labs. If you do keep them on hand, you should take them as soon as you're reasonably certain you'll be exposed.
Q: What should you do in case of a chemical attack?
A: If you're outside, find shelter as soon as possible -- the first unlocked door. Close all windows and doors. Turn off all heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems that draw air from outside. Seal all windows, doors, and ventilators with duct tape. Don't go to the basement, however; most of the likely chemical agents -- like GA (Tabun), GB (Sarin), and VX (methylphosphonothioic acid) -- are heavier than air; they tend to seep downward and collect there.
Q: What about a biological attack?
A: Go inside. Follow the same procedure for sealing your home that you would for a chemical attack. Wash hands and other exposed skin with soap and water. And don't panic. Since biological agents like anthrax or smallpox can take from three to fourteen days to act, there is time to notice the exposure and seek treatment. Anthrax can be effectively treated with antibiotics -- remember Cipro -- and isn't contagious. Smallpox vaccine is effective even after exposure -- the vaccine works faster than the disease.
Q: Is smallpox vaccine available? And when should you take it?

Not to the public, except in an emergency. The vaccine is owned by the government, and the only people to receive vaccinations are a few hundred scientists and medical professionals who deal directly with smallpox-type viruses. There's a stockpile of 15.4 million doses, and the government expects to have a total of 286 million doses by the end of the year. Precautionary vaccination is recommended only for bioterrorism and for public-health officials as well as the health-care workers who would be responding to smallpox cases.


Q: What should you tell your children about terrorism?

Children don't worry about terrorism as terrorism; they worry about things that might affect them. Their greatest fears are that someone will be injured or killed, that they will be separated from the family, or that they will be left alone. FEMA suggests discussing the disaster in terms of the possible effects that children can comprehend, like loss of electricity, and reassuring them that there are many people -- firemen, police officers, teachers, neighbors -- who will be able to help. In addition, even very young children should be taught when and how to call for emergency assistance. It's also advisable to have children memorize the number of a contact in another city; after a disaster, long-distance lines often remain in service when local ones are down. After a terrorist attack, the most important thing, studies suggest, is to maintain a routine with which the child is familiar, to allow him to be more dependent on you for a time, to accept his feelings and reactions, and to shield him from television news coverage, discussing the incident with him yourself. Seeking professional help is necessary only when behavior becomes extreme, as when children begin having serious behavioral or academic problems, withdrawing from usual social activities, exhibiting depression, or focusing on the event to an extraordinary degree.


Q: What radio stations should you tune in to in the event of an attack?
A: The designated station in times of emergency is 1340 AM. But the FCC's voluntary Emergency Alert System, which is used primarily to warn about severe weather and hazardous chemical spills, is locally managed and runs on digital technology that allows messages to be sent out through all participating radio and broadcast and cable-TV stations, even if those stations have to be evacuated.
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