Nonstochastic (Acute) Effects

Unlike stochastic effects, nonstochastic effects are characterized by a threshold dose below which they do not occur. In other words, nonstochastic effects have a clear relationship between the exposure and the effect. In addition, the magnitude of the effect is directly proportional to the size of the dose. Nonstochastic effects typically result when very large dosages of radiation are received in a short amount of time. These effects will often be evident within hours or days. Examples of nonstochastic effects include erythema (skin reddening), skin and tissue burns, cataract formation, sterility, radiation sickness and death. Each of these effects differs from the others in that both its threshold dose and the time over which the dose was received cause the effect (i.e. acute vs. chronic exposure).

There are a number of cases of radiation burns occurring to the hands or fingers. These cases occurred when a radiographer touched or came in close contact with a high intensity radiation emitter. Intensity on the surface of an 85 curie Ir-192 source capsule is approximately 1,768 R/s. Contact with the source for two seconds would expose the hand of an individual to 3,536 rems, and this does not consider any additional whole body dosage received when approaching the source.

More on Specific Nonstochastic Effects

Hemopoietic Syndrome

The hemopoietic syndrome encompasses the medical conditions that affect the blood. Hemopoietic syndrome conditions appear after a gamma dose of about 200 rads (2 Gy). This disease is characterized by depression or ablation of the bone marrow, and the physiological consequences of this damage. The onset of the disease is rather sudden, and is heralded by nausea and vomiting within several hours after the overexposure occurred. Malaise and fatigue are felt by the victim, but the degree of malaise does not seem to be correlated with the size of the dose. Loss of hair (epilation), which is almost always seen, appears between the second and third week after the exposure. Death may occur within one to two months after exposure. The chief effects to be noted, of course, are in the bone marrow and in the blood. Marrow depression is seen at 200 rads and at about 400 to 600 rads (4 to 6 Gy) complete ablation of the marrow occurs. In this case, however, spontaneous regrowth of the marrow is possible if the victim survives the physiological effects of the denuding of the marrow. An exposure of about 700 rads (7 Gy) or greater leads to irreversible ablation of the bone marrow.

Gastrointestinal Syndrome

The gastrointestinal syndrome encompasses the medical conditions that affect the stomach and the intestines. This medical condition follows a total body gamma dose of about 1000 rads (10 Gy) or greater, and is a consequence of the desquamation of the intestinal epithelium. All the signs and symptoms of hemopoietic syndrome are seen, with the addition of severe nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea which begin very soon after exposure. Death within one to two weeks after exposure is the most likely outcome.

Central Nervous System

A total body gamma dose in excess of about 2000 rads (20 Gy) damages the central nervous system, as well as all the other organ systems in the body. Unconsciousness follows within minutes after exposure and death can result in a matter of hours to several days. The rapidity of the onset of unconsciousness is directly related to the dose received. In one instance in which a 200 msec burst of mixed neutrons and gamma rays delivered a mean total body dose of about 4400 rads (44 Gy), the victim was ataxic and disoriented within 30 seconds. In 10 minutes, he was unconscious and in shock. Vigorous symptomatic treatment kept the patient alive for 34 hours after the accident.

Other Acute Effects

Several other immediate effects of acute overexposure should be noted. Because of its physical location, the skin is subject to more radiation exposure, especially in the case of low energy x-rays and beta rays, than most other tissues. An exposure of about 300 R (77 mC/kg) of low energy (in the diagnostic range) x-rays results in erythema. Higher doses may cause changes in pigmentation, loss of hair, blistering, cell death, and ulceration. Radiation dermatitis of the hands and face was a relatively common occupational disease among radiologists who practiced during the early years of the twentieth century.

The reproductive organs are particularly radiosensitive. A single dose of only 30 rads (300 mGy) to the testes results in temporary sterility among men. For women, a 300 rad (3 Gy) dose to the ovaries produces temporary sterility. Higher doses increase the period of temporary sterility. In women, temporary sterility is evidenced by a cessation of menstruation for a period of one month or more, depending on the dose. Irregularities in the menstrual cycle, which suggest functional changes in the reproductive organs, may result from local irradiation of the ovaries with doses smaller than that required for temporary sterilization.

The eyes too, are relatively radiosensitive. A local dose of several hundred rads can result in acute conjunctivitis.