Dirty Bombs

What is a "dirty bomb"?

A dirty bomb, or radiological dispersion device, is a bomb that combines conventional explosives, such as dynamite, with radioactive materials in the solid, liquid or gaseous form. A dirty bomb is intended to disperse radioactive material into a small, localized area around an explosion. The main purpose of a dirty bomb is to frighten people and contaminate buildings or land.

What is the difference between a dirty bomb and the atomic bombs used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

There is a big difference. The atomic explosions that occurred in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were caused by nuclear weapons. A dirty bomb is a conventional explosive device that has been adapted to spread radioactive material and contaminate only a small area. Because the material will disperse as a result of the explosion, areas near the blast will be contaminated. The level of contamination will depend on how much radioactive material was in the bomb, as well as the weather conditions at the time of the blast.

What are the dangers of the dirty bomb?

The primary danger from a dirty bomb containing a low-level radioactive source would be the blast itself. Gauging how much radiation might be present is difficult when the source of the radiation is unknown. However, at the levels created by most sources, there would not be enough radiation in a dirty bomb to cause severe illness from exposure to radiation. Certain radioactive materials dispersed in the air could contaminate several city blocks, create fear and require costly cleanup.

What are sources of radioactive material?

There has been a lot of speculation about where terrorists could get radioactive material to use in a dirty bomb. The highest-grade radioactive materials are present in nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons sites. However, increased security at these facilities would make theft of these materials extremely difficult. It is far more likely that radioactive materials used in a dirty bomb would come from low-level radioactive sources. These sources are found in hospitals, on construction sites and at food irradiation plants. They are used to diagnose and treat illnesses, sterilize equipment, inspect welding seams, and irradiate food to kill harmful microbes. Most of these sources are not useful for constructing a dirty bomb.

What should I do if there is a "dirty bomb" explosion in my city?

If a dirty bomb goes off in your city, it will probably not affect you unless the explosion is very close to your location. Keep televisions or radios tuned to local news networks for information. Remember that even if a dirty bomb goes off in your city, it will likely affect only a small area.

What if I am nearby and a "dirty bomb" goes off?

The biggest danger is from the force of the explosion. As with any exposure to potential contamination, the following precautions will reduce your risk:

  • Move away from the immediate area--at least several blocks from the explosion--and go indoors. This will reduce exposure to any radioactive airborne dust.
  • If feasible, remove your clothes and place them in a sealed plastic bag. Save them to allow for future testing of the clothing for radiation contamination.
  • Take a shower (using a mild soap) to wash off dust and dirt. This will reduce total radiation exposure, if the explosive device contained radioactive material.

What should I do next?

  • Turn on to local radio or TV channels for advisories from emergency response and health authorities.
  • If radioactive material was released, the local news broadcasts will advise you where to report for radiation monitoring.

Will I get cancer?

Being near a radioactive source for a short time or even being exposed to a small amount of radioactive material does not mean that a person will get cancer.


Call the New York State Department of Health Information Hotline at 518-402-7550 or 800-458-1158, visit www.health.ny.gov or e-mail at berp@health.state.ny.us

For additional information about radiation and emergency response, see

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Web site at www.bt.cdc.gov
  • The CDC Public Response Service at 1-888-246-2675
  • The Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors at www.crcpd.org or (502) 227-4543
  • The Nuclear Regulatory Commission Radiation Protection Program at www.nrc.gov or (301) 415-8200
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at www.fema.gov or (202) 646-4600.
  • The Radiation Emergency Assistance Center/Training Site at www.orau.gov/reacts or (865)-576-3131
  • The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) at www.doe.gov or 1-800-dial-DOE