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Dispelling Myths during a Radiation Emergency

This information is for historic and reference purposes only.  Content has not been updated since the last reviewed date at the bottom of this page.
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How much do most people know about radiation? What do they think they know? How would the public react to a radiation emergency and the basic messages to get inside, stay inside, and stay tuned in if in an affected area?

In an emergency, communicators need to anticipate myths and rumors and use emergency communication approaches to dispel them. CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health interviewed people on the street to help identify common myths people believe about radiation. Below are some common myths and how to disprove them in ways people will understand.

  1. Myth: “There is nothing you can do to protect yourself from radiation exposure.”
    Fact: People can protect themselves from radiation exposure if they are in or around an affected area.
    Communication approach: When communicating during a radiation emergency, give clear, easy-to-follow, protective actions to people. Tailor the actions to the specific audience and geographic area.
  2. Myth: “Even the smallest dose of radiation is not safe and will harm you.”
    Fact: We are all exposed to small doses of radiation as part of our daily lives and are not harmed by it.
    Communication approach: Communicators can become familiar with the radiation hazard scale and radiation thermometer to better understand and communicate the specific risks associated with different doses of radiation.
  3. Myth: “Clinicians who treat contaminated people are risking their own lives.”
    Fact: There are ways clinicians can protect themselves from contamination while responding to patients in a radiological event. In most situations, the risk for exposure through a patient is low.
    Communication approach: Provide detailed instructions to clinicians on the proper protective measures they can take using a credible source or spokesperson. Communicate clinician safety measures before or at the outset of an event so there is no delay in the treatment of life-threatening injuries.

These and other myths are dispelled by CDC radiation experts in these online videos. Radiation is not well understood by most people and is especially challenging to explain or understand under the time pressures of an emergency. As with any type of emergency, communicators should be prepared to identify and address myths.

For more resources and information on CERC, please see Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication, 2014 Edition or Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication Pandemic Influenza, 2007.

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