Inexpensive passive radiation detectors: RADSticker vs. RADTriage

Radiological disasters can occur from a nuclear power plant failure, or a dirty bomb, or the fallout from a nuclear explosion. A power plant failure can be caused by a range of natural disasters, such as the earthquake and tidal wave that caused the Fukushima failure. It can also be caused by human error, as happened at Chernobyl. Whatever the cause, when there is a nuclear disaster in your area, you will need some means to detect the radiation.

I’ve already reviewed a top-of-the-line radiation detector: Gamma Scout Alert Model. But the cost of several hundred dollars is prohibitive for many persons. If you don’t think a radiological disaster is likely in your area of the country, you might prefer to spend your prepping and survival money on other resources. However, unexpected events can happen. Even if you concentrate your efforts on the more likely emergency scenarios, it makes sense to give some attention to the more serious, if less likely, events.

With this in mind, you might want to consider buying an inexpensive passive radiation detector. This article reviews two types: RADSticker and RADTriage. Both are made by the same company JP Laboratories, and they work in much the same way. There is no electronics; this is passive detection. Each product is basically laminated cardstock, coated with a material that changes color when exposed to radiation. You read the color on a central sensor strip, and compare it to the color on a set of squares marked with the radiation dose for that color. The darker the sensor strip, the higher the radiation reading.

Both products indicate only the cumulative dosage. You cannot tell if that dose accumulated over a year or a day. Well, that’s not entirely true. You can use common sense. If there is no color change for the first six months that you own the device, and then a radiological disaster occurs in your area, you can draw the reasonable conclusion that any subsequent color change over the next few days or weeks began with that disaster.

Both RADSticker and RADTriage respond mainly to gamma rays and x-rays. They will also register high-energy beta radiation (electrons), but this type of radiation is stopped by a thin layer of clothing, by the material of any wallet or purse, or even a thick piece of cardboard. So for practical purposes, these devices read gamma and x-rays.

There are a few caveats. Both of these radiation detectors should be kept out of direct sunlight, and, even better, out of any light at all. If it is on a surface in your home, cover the sticker or card so that it is not exposed to light. Any exposure to light, especially direct sunlight, shortens the lifespan of the device. Similarly, the device should be kept at temperatures at or below room temperature. Higher temperatures mean a shorter lifespan.

At room temp and with little or no light exposure, the lifespan is two years. However, if you keep either product sealed and in a freezer, the lifespan increases to ten years. You might want to do both. Buy at least two, and keep one or more in a freezer, and one or more in your home or on your person. These devices are both so inexpensive that you can afford to buy more than one.

RADSticker is the least expensive of the two devices. It is in fact a sticker; you peel off the backing, and stick it to a card in your wallet or purse. You can stick it to a surface in your home or office. But keep it out of exposure to light, and away from heat sources.

RADSticker is approx. 1.25 inches square. It is just a little larger than an ordinary postage stamp. The print on the sticker is rather small. But the main disadvantage with the RADSticker is not the size; it is the sensitivity. The lowest reading on the sticker is 25 rads (=250 mSv). This is half the maximum lifetime radiation exposure for workers in the nuclear industry. Readings at 25, 50, and 100 rads are survivable, with increased cancer risk, for any healthy adult.

One study, cited on the EPA.gov site says: “what is the lowest dose of x or gamma rays for which there is good evidence of increased cancer risks in humans? The epidemiological data suggest that it is about 10 to 50 mSv for an acute exposure, and about 50 to 100 mSv for a protracted exposure.” (Cancer Risks Attributable To Low Doses Of Ionizing Radiation)

Acute exposure means that the radiation dose occurred over a short period of time, as would be typical of a dose from a radiological disaster. Acute exposure is more dangerous; a lower dosage causes more severe harm when received in a short period of time. So 10 to 50 mSv, which is 1 to 5 rads, increases cancer risk. Essentially, even a small dose of radiation is harmful. But risk of radiation sickness does not begin until about 400 mSv (40 rads). So with RADSticker, at the lowest reading of 25 rads, you are already well above the 1 to 5 rad dose for increased cancer risk, and you are not far away from the earliest radiation sickness symptoms at 40 rads.

And that is the main reason you might want to spend the extra money to get RADTriage. While RADSticker currently costs about $5.00, RADTriage costs about $30, plus shipping. (Remember, as in all our articles, prices vary, are subject to change, and are not guaranteed.) They are each made by the same company, with the same technology. But RADTriage is more sensitive to lower doses of radiation.

RADTriage is not a sticker; it is the size and thickness of a credit card. The larger size makes it easier to read the indicator squares and sensor strip, and easier to read the text on the card.

RADTriage has its indicator squares (around the central sensor strip) marked in mSv (millisieverts), whereas RADSticker is marked in rads. The low reading on RADSticker is 25 rads (250 mSv) and the high reading is 1000 rads (10,000 mSv). The lowest readings on RADTriage are 20 mSv (2 rads), 50 mSv (5 rads), 100 mSv (10 rads), and 250 mSv (25 rads). The high reading on the RADTriage is the same as on RADSticker 10,000 mSv (1000 rads). So RADTriage gives you three readings at a lower sensitivity than RADSticker, and the same range of higher readings.

RADTriage also has a better service life indicator square than RADSticker. The indicator has dark-colored dots on it which will turn red if the card was exposed to excessive heat, rather than excessive radiation. Then you will know that sensor strip is giving you a false positive, i.e. that it seems to be indicating radiation exposure, but this reading was caused by heat, not radiation. On the other hand, if the indicator square turns a dark color, matching the dark-colored dots, it means the card was exposed to excessive sunlight. Again, the card is then not a reliable indicator of radiation exposure. The device must be replaced in either case.

My take on the differences between these two products is that RADTriage is well-worth the extra money over RADSticker. If there is a radiological disaster, you will be kicking yourself for not spending an extra $25 bucks plus shipping for the more sensitive device. I bought both types, and I intend to use both. I will place the stickers in my wallet and in my home, and also keep the RADTriage card available in case of a nuclear disaster.

RADTriage Manual [PDF]
RADSticker Manual [PDF]

For a summary of radiation risks with increased dosage, see this chart and its listed sources, Radiation Dose Chart.

– Thoreau

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