In the mini series "Chernobyl" first responders who were exposed to radiation at the scene had to be quarantined. Why? My understanding is that when Uranium 235 fissions it releases nuetrons and gamma energy. The gamma enery can penetrate the skin and 'ionize' compounds in our bodies (bad) as well as break checmical bonds in our dna (also, bad and maybe not a different thing). So that explains why direct exposure is bad, but what is the mechanism for them continuing to be dangerous to others around them? Is fissioning Uranium somehow in their body?

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    $\begingroup$ I think we've had varaition on this question before, butI'm too lazy to seaarch for them. Your search terms are "contamination" and "activation" with the former being the bigger issue because it is much more insideous that a casual thought might suggest and the best cleaning methods available are only largely successful. $\endgroup$ – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Dec 4 '19 at 22:49
  • $\begingroup$ The depiction in the chernobyl series is just unerealistic. They show how people are isolated because they are allegedly radioactive and a danger to other people. That is days later when they already removed all contaminated clothing. They treat it like a contagious infection in that series. $\endgroup$ – Azzinoth Dec 4 '19 at 23:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Azzinoth The series was based on reality. Soviet response was not. $\endgroup$ – JEB Dec 5 '19 at 0:25

Used nuclear fuel contains fission products like cesium-137 and iodine-131. When that escapes from the core of the reactor surfaces, clothes, food, dust etc will get "contaminated" with radioactive isotopes. People will ingest and inhale these. Unhealthy.

But there is no infection. After a shower and clean clothes, such people are not a danger to others. However, it seems that people from Hiroshima and Fukushima were shunned like bearers of contagious diseases. Very strange, but possibly due to unfortunate jargon like "contamination".

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  • $\begingroup$ It could also be that some languages have no separate words for "contaminated" and "infected". $\endgroup$ – TimWescott Dec 4 '19 at 23:04
  • $\begingroup$ In extreme cases like Chernobyl and SL-1 some of the victims picked up so much contamination, trapped in the lungs, and digestive tract, or embedded in burned skin, that decontamination was impossible, but radiation levels were high enough that they presented a health risk to 1st responders and health-care workers. $\endgroup$ – Charles E. Grant Dec 4 '19 at 23:24
  • $\begingroup$ @CharlesE.Grant First responders would have so many other things to worry about (like ingesting dust themselves) that radiation from cleaned victims would be the least of their worries. In a normal environment you are right. A colleague of mine was treated with I-131 and she was "hot" and for a few days she posed a potential health risk to family members. $\endgroup$ – Pieter Dec 4 '19 at 23:43

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