Degree Finder For Public Health

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How to Decontaminate a Radioactive Environment
By Staff

In the wake of Fukushima, it has become clear that people need good information in order to confront public health disasters. There will come a time after a radiological emergency that you will be informed by authorities that the radiological emergency is ‘over’ and everything is fine. This is when thoughts of decontamination of your environment come to the fore, and that will take careful consideration, planning, and commitment. EPA Decontamination Techniques is something that should be read carefully before attempting to decontaminate your own property.

In a real radiological emergency involving melting, exploding and/or burning nuclear plants or weapons explosions in the atmosphere involving fallout plumes, things aren’t automatically “fine” just because the source has stopped dumping. Iodine-131 will decay away in about 3 months, but those other limiting isotopes like cesium-137 and strontium-90 won’t be ‘gone’ for at least 300 years. The heavy metal fuel, steel and rust isotopes that have been dumped will be hanging around in the environment for thousands (or millions) of years. Bringing your property back to a semblance of non-radioactive normalcy, is a lot of hard work.

The very first thing to bear in mind about individual (i.e., non-professional) decontamination efforts is that simply by doing the work you will inevitably stir up more radiation than you want to be exposed to after the danger is supposedly passed. So you will not only have to remember and put to use both the housecleaning aspects of ‘shelter-in-place’ all over again to keep it out of your living space, and keep up your anti-radiation damage dietary regimen, you will have to go ahead and get an ample supply of coverall clothing, latex and cotton gloves, hoods/hats, breathing filtration masks, etc. to use while you do the decontamination work.

It is a good idea to convert an area of your garage into a “step-off” pad and decon area, more important now than during your sheltering days. An exterior type shower rig is necessary, along with some kind of slick-surfaced enclosure with a drain – the shower area will need regular decontamination too, so make it easy. You can use a hose with a shower-type nozzle, coil it in the warm air so the water is warm if you can. Do NOT use hot water to scrub down after working in a contaminated area, as you will want to avoid breathing steam that will have isotopes of contamination in it. Keep a good supply of scouring pads for thoroughly cleaning feet/legs and hands/arms. Lye soap for the purpose is also recommended – you can apply moisturizers later indoors.

Shelves for equipment, ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ bins for clothing and trash (with lids and liner bags), coat hooks on the door wall for hanging less contaminated outer clothing and hats, etc. After you have moved dirt, power-washed any surfaces, dug and concentrated any growing things, etc. you will have to thoroughly decontaminate YOURSELF before returning to your indoor environment. Don’t forget those charcoal and fine particle filters on your air circulation devices either. You’re going to need a lot of borax, so stock up. The bigger boxes are often available inexpensively from Dollar Stores, buy several at a time. Other useful products for decontamination of surfaces that are to be washed include powdered chlorine bleach, laundry soda and scouring powders. You will also wish to find a source for zeolite and/or bentonite (Fullers Earth clay) in bulk, and will probably need several big rolls of porous landscaping fabric.

Most of all, if you have young children, do NOT allow them outside to play in the yard any time you are or have just finished with any decontamination job. Still carry them to and from the car when going places, so their nose and mouth are not closer to the ground than yours. Do continue pet precautions as well, as anything you stir up is going to end up in them if you aren’t careful.

NOTE: No one should attempt to undertake a significant environmental decontamination effort if they do not have a good beta-gamma radiation detector. First, you won’t know what needs decontamination if you don’t know where the contamination is, and second you will want to stay aware daily of levels you’ve stirred up or the success of your efforts. New, compact models start at less than $200 and are adequate for the job, come with ample instructions on use so that you don’t end up contaminating the meter so it can no longer give an accurate read.

Do not begin your decontamination efforts until radiation levels on your property are ‘normal’ except at ground level, on surfaces, and along drainage pathways. It can take many months’ worth of rains to get contaminates out of the air and onto the surface, as well as naturally beginning to concentrate along drainage pathways, into plants, and such enough for you to be able to tell what needs doing. Avoid using cleaning agents and/or solvents that are themselves serious chemical pollutants. If your property is contaminated enough to require such agents, you should not be contemplating doing the job yourself.

1. Remove all contaminated landscaping plants close to your building’s foundations, along with all ground cover plants out to a distance of at least 6 feet. After surveying the ground remaining, you may also wish to remove it to a depth of a foot or more. After removing dirt, cover the bottom of the excavated area with landscaping fabric and a layer of zeolite, Fullers clay or boron mixed with clay if it is still reading above background before you put in uncontaminated fill. You can leave the area bare and mulched, or replant with a low-growing non-climbing ground cover. Avoid replanting shrubs, as these have deeper root systems and will tend to draw contamination in lower soil levels into themselves, thus exacerbating your original problems. It may look bare for some time, but that is preferable to contamination so close to your house.

2. Do the same type of excavation of sod and/or plants around your heat pump if your house uses one, and the entire area underneath children’s play areas and seating areas that are not on solid surfaces. Do cover the ground at depth with porous landscaping cloth and fill with clean, heavy bark mulch or pea gravel to keep contamination away from the pump’s air flow. Solid surfaces – sidewalks, patios, etc. – should be power washed with boron water after digging out the ground around them out to a couple of feet. Once they are decontaminated, cover the excavated ground with landscaping cloth, a layer of zeolite clay mixed with rock dust, then fill with heavy bark mulch or pea gravel.

3. After several months’ of rain you should find that contamination has collected beneath drainspouts and along drainage depressions through and along your property. You will want to excavate these areas as well and use heavy mulch to keep the subsurface dirt from rising to the surface where it can dry out and become airborne. Drainage pathways at the edge of yards and gardens can be helped by planting “super-absorber” plants such as horseradish. Low-lying, marshy areas may benefit from planting willows, as willows grow fast and absorb some radioisotopes. Annual or perennial plants such as horseradish can be carefully dug out every year or two and replanted until such time as they no longer produce a beta-gamma reading above background. If you have any grazing animals they must be kept away from these areas for the entire time remediation is ongoing. Children should not be allowed to play in these areas either.

4. If your entire yard is contaminated, you can go ahead and excavate it in sections, lay the landscaping cloth, fill with clean dirt/compost on top of clay or pea gravel and replant or re-sod. If you re-sod use a radiologically ‘clean’ high quality sod with a thick root-mat to help keep that contaminated subsoil from resurfacing over time. Or eliminate most of your green lawn entirely by planting regionally adapted cultivars in pleasing landscape designs (a practice known as xeriscaping). This will save water as well as lots of time and effort mowing and such. In contaminated areas it could be your best choice.

ALL plants, sod, shrubs, etc. removed from your property should be properly disposed of in a landfill, never burned, chipped as mulch or composted. You may not wish to cut down any larger trees on your property, so just be aware that leaf fall should be dealt with in season as contaminated material. Bag it and take it to the landfill, do not compost it or use as mulch. Never burn them.

5. If you are a vegetable gardener, excavate your beds, line them as above, and install raised beds with entirely clean soil/compost. Do test your produce with your trusty beta-gamma meter before eating any of it, cut open tomatoes, squash, peppers, cukes and melons before testing. Be aware that berries and fast growing greens like lettuce, kale, spinach and such easily absorb contamination from soil and water. You may find that a greenhouse with well-raised beds may be the best way to produce your own food. Do not line dry your laundry at any time during decontamination spraying or excavation to avoid getting contamination on your clean clothes.

Things to remember during the entire time of decontamination –

• Always wear clean coveralls, hat and breathing mask when doing the work, use cloth tape to cinch around wrist-to-glove and pant leg-to-boots to prevent dust from getting inside. Pull-on rubber galoshes are most useful foot covering, fairly easy to clean.

• Always carefully bag and hamper contaminated clothing, towels, washcloths & scrubs, etc. Wear a breathing mask when doing the laundry too, and wash your hands/arms well after handling the soiled clothing.

• Keep outdoor work shoes, boots and galoshes outside the exterior door. Here the value of rubber galoshes becomes obvious – hose them off well before removing. Protect by putting them in a box if you do not have a roofed porch.

• Always shower – scrubbing well with soap – in cold or lukewarm water before entering the house from your garage decon area. Put towels and such in the ‘hot’ hamper.

• Keep your windows closed and use fine filters on your air circulation/AC units during decontamination outdoors, follow the “shelter in place” guidelines for airborne contaminates.

So long as your property is not so seriously contaminated that it requires professional decontamination or abandonment, these methods should work well to eliminate what has accumulated during the emergency – or at least keep it well underground and not readily percolated to the surface. It takes time and some very hard work, so unless you are committed to following through you may have to consider whether it’s worth the trouble. Relocation is always an option if need be, and one should consider the proximity of the source. A nearby nuclear plant is entirely likely to release contaminates on a semi-regular basis (or a constant basis following serious accident), and longer lived isotopes levels will forever be cumulative – i.e., will continue to build up over time.

Knowledge about radiation, contamination, and ways of protecting yourself, your family and your property can help dispel irrational fears and alleviate high stress levels that can be as damaging to health as the radiation itself. Unfortunately the truth about releases, isotopes and contamination levels is not easy to come by. Both governments and corporate nuclear concerns are well known to either lie blatantly about dangers or simply keep dangerous secrets that would prevent the public from knowing there is reason to take proper precautions. That is why your radiation meter is your best friend – no one can pull the wool over your eyes if you can measure the levels of radiation and contamination for yourself. If you do happen to live close to any type of nuclear facility, develop the habit of taking measurements regularly so you can be forewarned of problems when they occur.

Some useful Info-Links

EPA Decontamination Techniques

Japan AEC: Remediation of Affected Areas

Phytoremediation: Plants that help eliminate radiation in soil

Things you can do to remediate radioactive contamination

How To Decontaminate Water After Fallout

Detoxifying Clothes and Bedding