Cleanliness is Next to Godliness, But...

posted 6/26/02, updated 2/2/03

As I write this, in June 2002, the whole world, it seems, is trembling with fear over the threat of a "dirty bomb" attack.
For those of you who haven't been paying attention to the news, only watch sport on the T.V., only view porn sites on the web, are American, or are otherwise clueless, a "dirty bomb" is a conventional or improvised explosive device laced with some sort of radioactive material. When detonated, this does not produce a fissile reaction (i.e. nuclear explosion), but spreads around tiny particles of radioactive material, which we've all been conditioned to instinctively respond to as A Bad Thing.
This is a load of bollocks, really.
"What!?", you scream, spewing bits of curry or deep-fried chicken on your computer monitor, "the media has been sensationalizing something?". Yeah, I know. It's a shocker, isn't it? Read on.


The danger from a "dirty bomb" is really very little higher than of a identical non-dirty bomb. Fifty-five gallons of Ammonium Nitrate and petrol when detonated can make a quite nice crater, and badly damage it's environs. Adding a few kilos of non-explosive, somewhat reactive material to the bomb won't do much. Yes, the crater may be unhealthily radioactive for prolonged exposure, but there will likely be little or no increased radioactivity beyond, say, a hundred-foot (about thirty metre) radius. And as long as fire-fighters and other rescue personnel use face masks (respirators), they should be fine. Others in the vicinity are more endangered by the explosion than the contamination. Once the rubble is carted safely away, and the top few centimetres of soil, pavement, etc removed from the vicinity of the crater, everything's back to normal.
A "dirty bomb" detonated in the air would have even less effect. A few kilos of radioactive material detonated over a large city would affect several square miles, yes... but the level of radioactivity in any one area would be quite low. Done surrepetitiously, say as part of a fireworks display, the effects would not even be noticed for months, perhaps years.
Logically speaking, any group of malcontents who somehow acquired enough sufficiently fissile material to produce an even moderately dangerous "dirty bomb" would do rather to sell the material, which would be worth rather a lot on the black market, and invest the returns in, perhaps, conventional high explosives, or shoulder-fired rockets...
Why do people fear these so? Is is another legacy of the so-called "cold war"? Is it that all the baby-boomers grew up being told to fear The Bomb? Or is is that we're simply being programmed by the media, knowing the association that "dirty" = "bad". If you want to (or are simply going to) be frightened of radiation, there are other, better things to worry about. Radon, for instance. It's EVERYWHERE. Cell phones are a much bigger danger, affecting far more people, than "dirty bombs", yet few if any people are afraid of them. Is this just because Big Business is involved? Or is it because, as in Iraq, the evil we know is better than the evil we only imagine?


Far more worrisome than a "dirty bomb" is the use of reactive material to contaminate our food or water supply. Some people are worried because they live in a city with high odds of being attacked, like New York. Others are rather more paranoid and live in fear in places such as Trenton, Ontario. They imagine the suffering and deprevation that would be caused by a "dirty bomb" being detonated in their city.
Suppose a terrorist with radioactive matter, instead of directly attacking a city such as New York, instead found a way to get this material into the water supply. Sound far fetched? It isn't. All you need is a well. There are millions, if not billions of them all over the world. And ingesting radioactive material (in this case, water) produces more severe symptoms in a shorter period of time.

So a terrorist contaminates an aquifer. Big deal, right? Most cities are served by several. They just stop pumping from that aquifer. Well, sure. After they decontaminate the water filtration and water purification systems, every pipe, the pumps...
They probably wouldn't notice very quickly, either. As far as I can tell, no water utility companies anywhere, except possibly those near nuclear reactors, test their water for radioactivity. Why would they? It's just an added expense and complexity.
"But still," you persist in your ignorant pestering, "it would still be just a localised problem, right?". Sure. Everyone in a few neighborhoods of one city, served by pumps drawing water from a few aquifers, gets sick or dies from drinking and bathing in contaminated water.
But what if the terrorists contaminated water supplies in rural areas in, say, Iowa? And the farmers then watered billions of bushels of corn with this radioactive water, and this corn then became corn chips, and tortillas, and taco shells, and was eaten on-the-cob...
Worried yet? Imagining the panic when people discover they can't trust the FOOD SUPPLY ? You should be. True, the operatives for the "Axis of Evil" haven't exactly shown a great deal of cunning this far... but that could change. Do you think corn-chip manufacturers closely inspect their products for radioactivity? How about potato crisps? Contaminate a few water tables in Idaho, and you can sicken or kill a huge number of "couch potatoes".[1]
(An addition, in 2003: The WHO is just now warning of this very danger. Way to go, World Health Organization. You read it here, first...)
There are worse things than "dirty bombs". The media[2] just doesn't want you to worry about them. Remember, an ignorant populace is far easier to control than an educated one.
What are the odds your local doctor is familiar with the symptoms of radiation poisoning? Is your doctor's attitude "assume it's the Flu, and go from there"? Do the NHS clinics in Suffolk, England recognize the symptoms? People are at risk, and governments spend their time appointing new cabinet positions as political favours to campaign donors, repeating themselves ad nauseum on the Mid-East... Call your local politicians. Call your local media. Ask them what's being done to protect the food and water supplies from contamination. Ask them what's been done to prepare for radiological contamination. Get them to THINK for a few moments. And then, once you've gotten them thinking, perhaps they'll ACT.

[1]: This would not be a bad thing, given overcrowding, the overconsumption of resources, and how little these people contribute to society.
[2]: And Big Business. And Big Brother, for that matter.


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