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MSD Manual

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Radiological Weapons


James M. Madsen

, MD, MPH, U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense (USAMRICD)

Last full review/revision Feb 2021| Content last modified Feb 2021
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Radiation exposure is discussed in detail elsewhere. Mass casualties due to radiation can result from the detonation of a nuclear device. A nuclear detonation not only creates a large burst of direct radiation but will also cause numerous blast and burn injuries and disperse radioactive material widely (termed fallout). Radioactive material can also be dispersed by packing it around a conventional explosive that is then detonated. Such a weapon is sometimes called a dirty bomb. People may also be exposed to radiation from a concealed source (for example, a container of radioactive material hidden under a subway seat). Doctors determine whether people have been exposed (irradiated), contaminated by radioactive dust and debris, or both. If contamination has occurred, doctors put people through decontamination measures.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy of the Department of Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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