How scientifically accurate was episode 1.06 “The Cure”? Popular Mechanics offer their perspective:
Can someone become radioactive intravenously?
In Milford, Mass., an unmarked van screeches to a stop on a quiet street. Two people in hazmat suits throw out a sickly woman named Emily. She makes her way to Holly’s Diner, and after a few bites of vegetable soup, she dies gruesomely—and so does everyone else in the restaurant. Agent Broyles says they were all exposed to high levels of radiation; Emily was irradiating three times as much as the other victims.
Radiation is a form of energy, and it can be either ionizing or non-ionizing. According to Paul Locke, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a member of the National Academy of Sciences Nuclear & Radiation Studies Board, ionizing radiation—similar to X-rays or gamma radiation—was at play here. This type of radiation is dangerous to human tissue because it has enough energy to dislodge an electron, and “it has the potential to disrupt cellular DNA, which can cause a cell to grow out of control and become malignant or cancerous,” says Locke.
Emily’s exposure to radiation came from an injection into her bloodstream, a scenario that, according to Locke, is definitely possible. “Radiation is given off by radioactive compounds,” he says. “If those radioactive compounds are injected into you and give off high levels of radiation, that could damage your organs, cause organ failure and result in sickness or death.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such exposure to high doses is known as Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS).
Jacky Williams, an associate professor of radiation oncology at the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center at the University of Rochester, confirms that Emily’s deadly radioactivity could only be from internal radiation poisoning. “If the radiation is the waveform, the moment the machine is turned off, there is no more radiation,” says Williams, whose lab is working to develop countermeasures to radiation terrorism, understanding the risks to astronauts and trying to learn the mechanisms of radiation therapy-related side effects. “That person does not glow in the dark and is not radioactive.”
Is it possible for someone with radiation poisoning to “cook” those around them?
In the diner, Emily managed to cause the other patrons’ eyes to become dilated and then bleed. Their body temperatures skyrocketed and their brains fried—one policeman’s head reached 121 degrees Fahrenheit.
Could Emily’s radiation contamination really have been contagious? Not likely. As we learned by debunking the science in the show’s premiere, contagions are reserved to microbial or viral threats—biological agents that multiply or reproduce once inside the body. “However, a person may become internally contaminated when they swallow or breathe in radioactive materials, or when radioactive materials enter the body through an open wound or are absorbed through the skin,” says Dr. Robert Whitcomb, a member of the CDC’s National Center of Environmental Health in the Radiation Studies Branch.
After some experiments, Walter Bishop concludes that the radioactive element was strontium-90. He also mentions microwaves, which Williams points out are at the opposite end of the spectrum to radiation. Radioactive strontium partially emits gamma radiation, but its biggest emissions are electrons, which dissipate as they pass through the air. Williams explains that if someone were injected with a highly active substance, such as the polonium that killed former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, that person would become radioactive and could irradiate others. “But the woman would have to get close to everyone-rubbing up against them or dirty dancing for minutes, if not hours, at a time-and the doses that the other people received would be relatively low and not lethal like hers.”
Are the eye-bleeding and brain-boiling side effects legitimate? Whitcomb explains that the first symptoms of ARS are typically nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. These symptoms will start within minutes to days after exposure. After some period of time, they will exhibit a loss of appetite, fatigue, fever and possibly even seizures and coma. After that, they often show signs of skin damage including swelling and redness. While Emily’s poisoning might have been at a high enough dosage to cause these symptoms within hours, Whitcomb can’t find any scientific basis for spread of radiation sickness depicted in Fringe.
“No, eyes do not bleed,” Williams said. “The only thing that causes that, as far as I know, is Ebola. I love the thought of boiled brains-although radiation can cause what looks like a burn, this is simply cells dying quickly, like an accelerated sunburn. But there is no actual boiling.”