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Cohen: How to survive a 'dirty bomb'

CNN's Elizabeth Cohen
CNN's Elizabeth Cohen  


(CNN) -- U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced Monday that a U.S. citizen had been arrested and charged with plotting to detonate a "dirty bomb," probably in Washington, D.C. Dirty bombs do not use a nuclear reaction, but instead use conventional explosives to disperse radioactive materials. CNN Health Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen spoke with CNN anchor Leon Harris about what steps to take after a dirty bomb detonates.

COHEN: What I found, actually, is that the most important things that you can do, in case there were to be such an explosion, are before you get to a hospital. It's interesting. Hospitals are supposed to be able to deal with it, but the important stuff comes first. Let go over some of what it is, because it's actually pretty simple.

If there has been a dirty bomb, a bomb that emits some sort of radiation, the first thing you're supposed to do is take off your clothes. That may sound strange, but the reason is that if there is any radiation that has gotten on your clothing, or dirt that has gotten on your clothing, you want that off. And once you've taken that off, that is a huge step because you've gotten rid of that surface the radiation might have gotten onto.

The second thing that you're supposed to do is wash up, preferably a shower. If not, then wash hands and face and other areas that might not have been protected by the clothing. In fact, if people come running to a hospital ... the first thing they would do would be to tell you, 'You can't come in here,' and they will theoretically have set up stations outside the hospital to do the kind of decontamination that I was talking about.

The other thing that's very important is that if you feel that you're at risk, if there's been any kind of dirty bomb with radiation, this [holding face mask] is called an N-95 mask. The number is important, because not all masks do the same thing. This mask I found just down the hall from my office because CNN, like other large companies, I would hope, has these available in case there were -- they're probably not thinking of dirty bombs, but a chemical kind of attack, or any kind of accident, that would keep you from inhaling any radiation.

So clothes off, wash up, use an N-95 mask.

HARRIS: How many hospitals are equipped to handle something like this, an outbreak of radiation if there were to be a dirty bomb or whatever. One report that I've seen said that there was only one hospital in the country set up right now to handle that kind of thing.

COHEN: That's not completely right. There's a difference between hospitals that have set up an area that's exclusively for that or that specialize in that. All hospitals, if they're accredited hospitals, are supposed to be equipped to deal with this kind of emergency or with a chemical or biological attack. Some, obviously, are going to be better than others. You would expect that large urban hospitals would have had training for their doctors and nurses, where a smaller rural one wouldn't have had the ability to have those training programs. But all hospitals are supposed to be able to deal with them.

Granted, not all of them are. Not all have had the kind of training they're supposed to. Whether or not they can deal with it, we really don't know, because we haven't had that kind of attack. God forbid, if there were an attack today, how many hospitals would handle it well? We don't know. It's never happened. But they're supposed to have the kind of training that would allow them to deal with it.

HARRIS: One more question. You say taking off your clothes is the first thing you do. Wouldn't the radiation go through your clothing anyway?

COHEN: That could happen. However, it is helpful, still to take off the clothes. It also depends on the proximity. If a bomb went off, God forbid, right between you and me, shrapnel would go into us and radiation would get in through the shrapnel. But if you're talking about people much farther away, taking off the clothes is a huge step.



 
 
 
 







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