EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – Potentially the worst radioactive material spill in North American history happened just across the border in late 1983, and as a result 200 people were exposed to radiation.  

The incident, involving an improperly discarded radiation therapy machine for cancer treatment, is just one of the ways radiation exposure can cause a catastrophic event and emphasizes the importance of ensuring first responders are trained to respond.

The Southwest Center for Pediatric Environmental Health (SWCPEH) at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso conducted on Sunday a four-hour online training to prepare Spanish-speaking emergency first responders on the U.S.-Mexico border for radiation emergencies. Participants included first responders from Ciudad Juárez, and Villa Ahumada and Chihuahua City, about 80 miles and 240 miles south of El Paso, respectively.

One of the leading resources for radiation emergency training is the “Advanced Hazmat Life Support for Radiological Incidents & Terrorism” course produced by the University of Arizona. To make the course accessible to Spanish speakers, SWCPEH staff translated the course’s book and teaching slides into Spanish for UArizona. In return for SWCPEH’s translation of the book and online course, UArizona agreed to allow use of the content at no charge to SWCPEH course participants.

“This course brings together the available literature from incidents that have occurred to give guidance on how to recognize, treat and understand the prognosis for radiation injuries. This type of training is rarely covered in any other formal training.” Scott Crawford, M.D., FACEP, CHSOS, director of the Training and Educational Center for Healthcare Simulation (TECHS) at TTUHSC El Paso

Exposure to high levels of radiation can lead to serious acute radiation sickness and death within days, weeks or months; low levels of radiation can increase the risk of cancer over a lifetime. Radiation emergencies can be caused by the accidental release of radiation from a nuclear power plant, or an accident involving the transportation or storage of radioactive materials.

The mission of the Southwest Center for Pediatric Environmental Health is to reduce environmental health threats to children. Although anyone can be harmed by radiation exposure, children are more vulnerable than healthy adults. This is because children have more growing and dividing cells in their organs and tissues, and they have many more years ahead of them, opening a larger window of time to develop cancer.

The SWCEPH is one of 10 Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units (PEHSU) in the U.S. and provides services to Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma.

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