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An article from the Los Angeles Times regarding the concerns of individuals who live near the Fukushima I Nuclear Plant that appeared in my local newspaper this morning contained this interesting tidbit:

For Japanese, the desperation has an added dimension: Already the name "Fukushima" is laden with something beyond the fear of damaged health.

The Japanese survivors of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki lived the rest of their lives with the stigma of having been exposed to radiation, a stain that the years never erased. Known as Hibakushas, they are formally recognized by the government if they lived within proximity of the blasts and receive a special medical allowance.

But the designation also led them to become ostracized by other Japanese, who feared wrongly that the contamination was contagious or could be hereditary. The result was that many survivors of the bombings, and even their children, lived ghettoized lives because of their exposure to radiation.

Is there any merit to their concerns?

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As others have stated, the radiation itself doesn't "stay" with a person. External exposure to radiation often takes the form of burns. Just as you wouldn't be concerned with "catching" sunburn by being close to someone who lingered at the beach too long, you also don't need to worry about "catching" radiation burns. Transference of radioactive particles, which can linger on skin, hair, and clothing, is the only transmission risk.

I think the one of the MAIN stigmas in Japanese culture after the atomic bombings stemmed from the belief that the children of those exposed to radiation would be born disfigured by horrifying birth defects. This is especially important in a society where family honor and kinship are so important. Many would argue that the "Godzilla" fear, of monsters born from radiation, is a manifestation of this concern.

Fortunately for the Japanese, their fears about the post-bombing effects of radiation being passed on to their kin went mainly unrealized. As this study shows:

The incidence of major birth defects (594 cases or 0.91%) among the 65,431 [births to parents exposed to radiation from the bombings]...accords well with a large series of contemporary Japanese births...where radiation exposure was not involved and overall malformation frequency was 0.92%. No untoward outcome showed any relation to parental radiation dose or exposure.

Hopefully the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the swift moves by the Japanese government to evacuate the areas around the troubled nuclear facilities, will prevent further generations from suffering under the unnecessary stigmas associated with radiation exposure.

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    +1 learned something. would have expected more birth defects. – Paul Apr 9 '11 at 4:40
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Radioactive radiation is a form of energy, if it hits your body it can damage it (depending on how high/low the energy is). But the radiation won't linger in your body, it's not going to make you "glow".

What can become a danger for others is radioactive dust or particles that stick to your clothes and skin. By hugging or touching somebody you could transfer that radioactive material. But if you get rid of your clothes and take a thorough shower you won't be a danger anymore.

Inhaling/swallowing radioactive material can make you contagious more permantly. A thorough scrubbing won't help anymore, because now there is a radioactive source inside you. Your bodily fluids (blood, urine, sweat and even semen) could irradiate others.

So, the radioactive radiation itself won't "infect" you and make you contagious.

You will only be contagious if you have something on or in you that is a continuous source of radioactivity.

EDIT: inserted Links

  • In addition, I SUSPECT that any kind of ingestion of radiation source which are potentially fatal to other would probably kill you pretty quickly. – horatio Mar 18 '11 at 21:35
  • Your third paragraph actually contradicts the article you linked to, "People who come into contact with a person contaminated by Po-210 will not be exposed to radiation (irradiated) simply by being in the proximity of this person, unless they ingest or inhale bodily fluids of the contaminated person." I have to ask just who would be ingesting your bodily fluids? More so who you be inhaling bodily fluids? – Rincewind42 Jan 28 '12 at 17:34
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    If someone has so much radioactive stuff in them that their bodily fluids become deadly in low to medium amounts that person is already dying from acute severe radiation sickness. – Magisch Jul 17 '17 at 8:35
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First of all, don't forget that most radiation damage is got not by directly "exposing to high dozes of radiation" - like when you stand in front of a radiation source and get irradiated. Direct irradiation of course happens to people who were directly exposed, but that's relatively rare.

The most typical way to get exposed to radiation is to inhale or otherwise consume radioactive materials and those materials stay in the body continuing to decay and irradiate not only the bearer but also everything around.

So of course if you have a choice of whether to stay near a person who inhaled radioactive materials or not to stay your obvious choice is not to stay. Yest the amount of materials typically inhaled/consumed is very low and so the amount of radiation produced by a bearer is also very low (since materials decay rather slowly) and also many types of radiation can't penetrate body tissues and "get out" to the outer world - they will mostly influence the bearer body. So risk of negative consequences of sitting next to a person who consumed radioactive materials is very low.

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