U.S. officials say the nation’s health system is ill-prepared to cope with a catastrophic release of radiation, despite years of focus on the possibility of a terrorist “dirty bomb” or an improvised nuclear device attack.
A blunt assessment circulating among American officials says, “Current capabilities can only handle a few radiation injuries at any one time.” That assessment, prepared by the Department of Homeland Security in 2010 and stamped “for official use only,’’ says “there is no strategy for notifying the public in real time of recommendations on shelter or evacuation priorities.”
We lack even the basic supplies to prevent thyroid cancer in the event of a catastrophe:
The U.S. Strategic National Stockpile stopped purchasing the best-known agent to counter radioactive iodine-induced thyroid cancer in young people, potassium iodide, about two years ago and designated the limited remaining quantities “excess,” according to information provided by the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ProPublica. Despite this, the CDC Web site still lists potassium iodide as one of only four drugs in the stockpile specifically for use in radiation emergencies.
The report also faulted state and municipal preparations:
Although hospital near nuclear power plants often drill for radiological emergencies, few hospitals outside of that area practice such drills. Most medical personnel are untrained and unfamiliar with the level of risk posed by radiation, whether it is released from a nuclear power plant, a “dirty” bomb laced with radioactive material or the explosion of an improvised nuclear weapon.
Many states don’t have a basic radiation emergency plan for communicating with the public or responding to the health risks. Even something as fundamental as the importance of sheltering inside sturdy buildings to avoid exposure to radioactive fallout from a nuclear explosion — which experts say could determine whether huge numbers of people live or die — hasn’t been communicated to the public.
Homeland Security concludes that we are not ready for a radiological disaster:
The Department of Homeland Security report acknowledges that officials are poorly prepared to communicate with the public and that the current organization of medical care “does not support the anticipated magnitude of the requirements” following an attack with an improvised nuclear device. It says the United States has “limited” treatment options for radiation exposure and notes that staff and materials aren’t in place to carry out mass evacuations after a large-scale release of radiation. “The requirements to monitor, track, and decontaminate large numbers of people have not been identified,” the report said.
Homeland Security’s findings mirror those of other agencies:
A report prepared last year by the Council on State and Territorial Epidemiologists was equally pessimistic about U.S. readiness. Based on surveys of public health officials in 38 states, it concluded that “in almost every measure of public health capacity and capability, the public health system remains poorly prepared to adequately respond to a major radiation emergency incident.” Forty-five percent of the states surveyed had no radiation plan at all for areas outside federally mandated nuclear power plant emergency zones. Almost 85 percent of the officials said their states couldn’t properly respond to a radiation incident because of inadequate planning, resources, staffing and partnerships.
And the situation is unlikely to improve soon, as the Washington Post notes:
The nation’s investment in emergency preparedness seems likely to decrease rather than increase, experts say, because of massive federal and state deficits.
U.S. hospitals are not equipped to handle a major nuclear emergency:
The American Medical Association devoted the March issue of its journal, Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, to the No. 1 scenario on the federal government’s list of 15 planning scenarios for emergency preparedness: a nuclear explosion equivalent to the force of a 10-kiloton trinitrotoluene (TNT) blast on a major population center.
Using Washington as an example, one study estimated that 180,000 hospital beds could be needed after such a detonation and that 61,000 of those patients could require intensive care. But Washington typically has only about 1,000 vacant beds — and there are only about 9,400 vacant intensive care unit beds in the entire United States.
After a nuclear blast, hospitals probably would fill with trauma patients. Later, others would arrive with acute radiation syndrome, which can take days to manifest and affects multiple organ systems. Without supportive care, about 50 percent of people exposed to 3.5 Gray, a measure of radiation dose, would die. Proper care would almost double the exposure level at which 50 percent would survive, but only a small fraction of American medical professionals have training and expertise in treating radiation injury.
If you can stand to read more, here’s the link: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/us-health-care-system-unprepared-for-major-nuclear-emergency-officials-say/2011/04/07/AF6ZSavC_story_2.html