The Effects of Nuclear Weapons on Plants, Animals and Humans
Purpose of the research: The purpose of this research is to evaluate the effects of nuclear weapons on plants, animals and humans. The hypothesis for this research is that has far reaching consequences on the health and the general welfare of the affected human population, and also affects animals as well as plants in the affected area.
Research Methods: This research paper is based on a review of literature. My point of research will be internet data gathered from different websites, which have documented research findings on the subject of nuclear weapons and their effect on the plants, humans and animals. The research paper is based on the facts found during the research.
To date, Hiroshima and Nagasaki goes down in history as the two surviving cities where nuclear weapons were used during the World War 2 and to devastating effects. Apart from the instant deaths that occurred right after Americans bombed Hiroshima and three days later, Nagasaki, thousands of deaths have been registered due to radiation related illnesses occurring from the two bombs.
Although there are no accurate numbers of the deaths in Hiroshima, the United Nations estimates that by December 1945, the death count was at about 140,000 people (Sublette, 1997; Walker, 2005). The Nagasaki death count on the other hand is estimated at 70,000 people. Apart from the deaths, the survivors and their descendants continue registering bodily injuries and other damaging effects to date (US dept. of Energy, 2007).
According to DArrigo (2004), radiation is energy that travels in waves. Unfortunately for humans, radiation can not be smelled, felt, seen or heard. In a nuclear weapon blast, nuclear radiation is usually 15 percent of the activity, with 50 percent of the explosion being presented as blast energy and the remaining 35 percent as thermal energy (atomic archives, 2008).
Of the 15 percent nuclear radiation, 5 percent affects animals, plants and humans as the initial radiation. Such occurs within a very short period of the explosion usually less than three minutes (atomarchive.com, 2008, p.1).
The remaining 10 percent nuclear radiation is gradual, which involves radioactivity of fission products usually present in the weapon debris, residue and explosion fallout. Fallout radiation usually occurs minutes after the nuclear explosion and happens from radioactive distributed in the air above the explosion site during the explosion.
The radioactive particles eventually fall to the ground. In the rainy season, the rain water carries the contaminated water to wider areas therefore causing more radiation effects to plants and animals.
Naturally, the earth releases natural radiation that affects human being, animals and plants and can lead to cancers in both animals and humans. In the case of the World War II bombings, the radiation that occurred during the two bombs led to fatalities within a 500 meters radius of where the bomb was dropped. However, people as far as five kilometers from the bombing place would later start developing symptoms of radiation poisoning, which included radiation related cancers.
According to Linsley (1997), the environment has cosmic radiation that exposes all organisms to natural radionuclide. However, nuclear weapons contain artificial radionuclide, which have higher adverse effects than those that occur naturally. DArrigo (2004), states that uranium that is usually found in the ground lacks in the concentration and the interactivity that would negatively affect the environment to great levels.
However, human beings have over the years learnt the art of mining the same, enriching it and converting it to gaseous forms such as Uranium-234, Uranium-235 and Uranium-238 among others (Auxier, 2004). The enriched Uranium is then used as nuclear reactors, nuclear power or fuel.
While the fuel form may seem like the least harmful to human beings, DArrigo (2004) states that every link in the fuel chain creates radioactive emissions, which are released into the environment consequently adding to the background radiation that affects human, plants and other organisms.
That aside, there is growing concern that the nuclear weapons even though never used on the human population again since World War II, continue releasing radiation to the environment during creation and testing. The negative effects in radiation comes from ionized radiation, which according to DArrigo (2004) breaks molecular bonds hence causing erratic chemical reactions.
According to DArrigo (2004), ionizing radiation is the energy or matter produced by an unstable atoms nucleus as it decays or tries to reach a stable state. The energy released is either in form of waves (X rays or gamma rays) or subatomic particles (beta and alpha). Uranium, which is used in the production of nuclear weapons, is among the radioactive elements that result in man-made radiation and radionuclide.
When radiation hits the cells or tissues of living organisms, it either damages or kills it. According to DArrigo (2004), a damaged cell is well able to rejuvenate and heal correctly. However, this does not happen all the time. In some cases, the cells or tissues repair incorrectly thus impairing their ability to grow or reproduce or it can repair incorrectly, but still reproduce. When the latter happens, the defects of the cell or tissue are passed over to subsequent generations.
Nuclear radiation has also been found to reduce the immunity of animals and human beings drastically thus compromising their ability to fight off diseases (Sublette, 1997). More to this, radiation causes mutations in the body cells, and especially in the defective body cells thus meaning that the spread of cancer is more probable in people and animals exposed to nuclear radiation than people in normal environments (DArrigo, 2004; Pike, 1998).
Testing of nuclear weapons continue releasing ionizing radiation pollutants into the environment. According to Catcott (2003, p. 228), the effect of ionizing radiation released by such tests takes two forms; 1) acute radiation effects, & 2) long-term or delayed effects. In Acute radiation effects, signs of injury develop within hours and could last up-to weeks after exposure.
Such effects occur to areas close enough to the testing sites. Long term or delayed effects on the other hand are not immediately noticeable, but eventually, the effects lead to the development of different types of cancers among the affected population, shortened life spans, which and/or mutation effects in the genes of the affected population. The latter could last for generations following the initial exposure to ionizing radiation.
According to Glasstone & Dolan (1977, p. 542), radiation in nuclear weapons either occurs as nuclear radiation or thermal radiation. Of these, nuclear radiation is the most intense, often palling in comparison to the effects of the blast and the thermal radiation. This however greatly varies according to the position of the nuclear attack. An air bust, a surface burst and an underground burst would all have different levels of radiation.
Using the World War II airburst nuclear attacks on the two cities in Japan as an example, Glasstone & Dolan (1977, p. 543) concludes that the kind of shelter that people (and animals) are during nuclear attacks affect the level of their exposure to radiation. Statistics on deaths and injuries during the Japanese attacks indicate that people who were outdoors died most, while those inside wooden structured suffered more casualties than those housed in brick or concrete buildings.
According to Glasstone & Dolan(1977, p. 560), nuclear weapons-related thermal radiation causes burns on people and animals directly through the absorption of radiant energy through the skin or indirectly through heating and consequent of ignition of clothes.
Direct burns are referred to as flash burns since they are caused by the flash that occurs when the nuclear fireball releases the thermal radiation. Indirect burns on the other hand are known as flame burns or contact burns, and are similar to skin burns sustained during ordinary fires or through contact with hot objects.
In the Japanese case, Glasstone & Dolan (1977, p. 565), notes that the flash burns were more than flame burns. This was especially because the two bombs targeted highly populated areas, and the fact that the weather in Japan at that time was warm. In Nagasaki alone, it is reported that 42,000 people suffered flash burns in areas as far as 1.1 miles away from the nuclear bomb. Less serious cases of flash burns were reported as far as 2.6 miles from the nuclear bomb site (Glasstone & Dolan, 1977, p. 566).
According to Catcott (2003, p. 227), radiation from nuclear weapon testing contaminate human and animals food chain. The radioactive elements deposited in the soil, are eventually taken up by plants or washed into the water bodies. The plants may be eaten directly as human food, or are eaten by animals, which may end up on the dinner table.
While current statistics indicate that contamination through such means is negligible at the moment, not research has ever found how much the human body can tolerate the contaminated food supply chain. Researchers however indicate that there is bound to be some on animals and humans if the radiation-contaminated food continues to be eaten (Catcott, 2003, p. 230)
According to Glasstone & Dolan (1977, p. 567), nuclear radiation can also cause Keratitis- an eye condition where the cornea becomes inflamed. In cases where thermal radiation exposure to the eyes is high, permanent cornea opacity can occur.
This happens because the cornea is the transparent part of the eye, which registers thermal energy received as part of the spectrum by the eye in normal circumstances. This is however a reversible condition and most people regain normal eyesight in approximately three years (Glasstone & Dolan, 1977, p. 570).
Researchers however suggest that if a nuclear explosion is to be conducted in the night, when it is usually dark and hence the eye pupil is bigger, the thermal radiation would be more intense. More to this, they also suggest that if the nuclear fireball occurs near the visual proximity of most people, the effects of the thermal radiation would also be dire.
According to the researchers however, the fact that the pupil is often shielded from intense light from the eyelids comes as a mitigating factor since it the lids would prevent the inner eye from too much exposure to the thermal radiation (Glasstone & Dolan, 1997, p. 571).
The bright flash that accompanies a nuclear weapon detonation usually produces two effects to the eyes: retinal burns and flash-blindness. Retinal burns are permanent injuries to the eyes, which happens when the retinal tissue if exposed to excess temperatures.
This is especially the case when a person looks directly at a fireball thus exposing their eyes to the intense heat generated by the fireball. According to Glasstone & Dolan (1977, p. 571), the primary pigmented cells in the eye absorbs most of the radiation energy generated during a fireball explosion and consequently increases the temperature in the eye.
Temperature increases of between 12 to 20 degrees centigrade in the eye, causes thermal injury, which injures not only the pigmented layers, but the adjoining rods and cones. This in turn causes permanent visual loss in the affected part of the retina.
According to Glasstone & Dolan (1977, p. 571), humans are naturally inclined to look at an exploding fireball thus increasing their chances of suffering retinal damages. However, unless the damage to the retina is expansive, some people rarely notice they have suffered any damages. This is especially the case when the damage is minor and centrally located along the central axis of ones vision.
The latter is the temporary impairment of sight, which occurs from the bleaching rods and cones, which act as the light sensitive elements in the retina. This condition can occur in people and animals that look directly at the fireball, or from scattered light affecting the eyes of people and animals that were looking elsewhere when the fireball exploded.
Sufferers of flash blindness (even in cases where nuclear weapons are not involved), state that their entire visual fields are blurred out and in their place the bright afterimage of the fireball or any other bright light remains as the constant image. This however only last for a few minutes before the affected people regains their normal vision.
Ionization and its effect on living organisms
According to Glasstone & Dolan (1977, p. 575), the harmful effects registered in are mainly from the ionization and excitation processes, which occur in cells of a living organism once it is exposed to the radiation. When ionization occurs, some cell constituents responsible for its normal functioning are either destroyed or altered.
More to this, the products that are formed as cells react to the radiation may be poisonous to the cell, and may result in chromosome breakages, swollen nucleus, swollen cells, increased cell fluid viscosity, weaker cell membranes and hence higher permeability, or even overall destruction of the affected cells.
Iodizing radiation not only breaks or damages the chromosomes but also damages the DNA when the unstable compounds and free radicals are formed when molecules in the body react with the radiation compounds. More to this Sublette (1997), states that the reactions in the cells interfere with the normal cell chemistry hence resulting in immediate effects on both the replication and metabolic processes.
The long term effects mainly relate to the genetic structure of the affected population, and this is usually passed over to their offsprings.
Further research suggests that when a cell is exposed to radiation, mitosis (cell division) is less frequent. In such a case, the normal replacement cycle for the cells in inhibited this affecting the general well being of the organism. In the event of a nuclear explosion, the immediate radiation would cause burn and eye infections as discussed above, but the long-term effects would take anything between several weeks to almost a millennia in plants, animals as well as human beings (Glasstone & Dolan, 1977. P. 576; Pike, 1998).
In addition to the burns and the effects to the eyes, animals and humans suffer other symptoms immediately or weeks after suffering the radiation exposure. Such include nausea, vomiting, malaise and loss of appetite. Glasstone & Dolan (1977, p. 583) states that the higher the doses of radiation exposure one experiences, the higher the intensity of the symptoms. Usually, these symptoms disappear within a day or two of development only to re-appear after two or more weeks.
This time however, they may include fever and diarrhea. Glasstone & Dolan (1977, p. 583) further indicates that more often than not sufferers of nuclear radiation poisoning will start to hemorrhage in various body organs including the skin. Blood in the urine usually suggests that the kidneys too are bleeding. When hemorrhage occurs, it is an indication that the radiation affected the blood platelets and the clotting mechanism.
Other symptoms seen as a result of nuclear weapons related radiation include loss of hair, and the body becoming more susceptible to disease, which it would normally be able to deal with. This is mainly because the radiation affects the white blood cells as well thus jeopardizing the bodys immunity.
The radioactive materials released in the event of a nuclear explosion leads to the release if radionuclide into the environment. Accordingly, this leads to an increased circulation of the same in the biosphere. In such a case, the radionuclides end up in water bodies, plant tissues and animal tissue.
According to Darrigo (2004; Bushberg, 2009), this bioaccumulation of radionuclide ends in the biosphere affects animals on the high part of the food chain. Further, the effects to human beings who eat vegetables and meat from the same biosphere are undeniable. An example of the radionuclide harmful to both human and animal health is Strontium 90, which according to DArrigo (2004), mimics calcium and is thus deposited in the bones consequently causing leukemia or bone cancer. Cobalt on the other hand mimics vitamin B6.