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Beyond the Headlines: Dirty Bombs

Interview by Sara Engram

The Issue: In the post–9/11 world, radiological “dirty bombs” have emerged as one of the most likely terrorist weapons.

The Expert: Jonathan Links, PhD ’83, professor, Environmental Health Sciences, and radiological terrorism consultant for the City of Baltimore


What is a dirty bomb? 

A dirty bomb uses explosives to disperse radioactive material into the environment. Dirty bombs are not atomic or nuclear bombs; they consist of conventional explosives, like dynamite, packaged with radioactive materials. In general, a dirty bomb is more likely to be a weapon of mass disruption than a weapon of mass destruction—more potent as a psychological threat than a physical one.

What would be the consequences of a dirty bomb attack? 

Many factors determine the consequences, including the type and amount of radioactive materials and the prevailing wind conditions. It’s likely that relatively few people would suffer acute radiation effects, although a larger group would have a somewhat elevated risk of cancer. The people at greatest risk—those closest to the attack—would suffer radiation exposure and likely injuries from the explosives. The radioactivity from a dirty bomb can contaminate interior walls, the outside of build-ings, and sidewalks and streets. The surfaces may need to be sandblasted or actually demolished and carted away as low-level radioactive waste. 

What kind of medical treatment is available for radiation victims? 

Those with external exposure, limited to their skin or clothing, would be thoroughly cleaned in decontamination tents. Internal exposure through inhalation, ingestion, or absorption would require efforts to decrease the body’s absorption of radioactivity and increase elimination by using laxatives, emetics, and charcoal to absorb radioactivity and pass it through the body. Further treatment could include rehydration and bone marrow transplants. Despite these efforts, victims of high doses could die within hours, days, or weeks. 

How can we prepare for the possibility of a dirty bomb attack? 

The best defense is to have a plan. Public health professionals need to communicate ahead of time so we don’t have an overreaction. In Baltimore, we have trained all four shifts of the fire department’s hazardous materials team and the police department’s bomb squad in the use of radiation detectors. If radiation is detected after an incident, a 12-block area is evacuated while a more complete assessment is instantly carried out. Depending on the findings, further evacuations would be ordered within an hour. 

As a nation, are we doing enough to prepare for the possibility of a dirty bomb attack?  

I don’t think so. To my knowledge, Baltimore is the only municipality in the country with a fleshed-out plan for dealing with a dirty bomb.


No dirty bomb has been used so far, but terrorist groups are known to have explored such weapons and the radioactive material would be easy to obtain. Currently, there are 500,000 “orphaned sources” of radioactivity—materials that are unaccounted for but are known to exist. There is also ready access to legitimate sources, such as industrial radiography materials used at construction sites.