Swimming In A Deadly Sea: Awash In Radiation
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Kathleen Deoul: Well, that's a relief. But where would we encounter ionizing radiation in our daily activities?
Copulos: Actually, we encounter ionizing radiation more often than you might expect. Indeed, most of us have been exposed to one form of ionizing radiation many times in our lives: X-rays. In fact, X-rays are the largest single source of man-made radiation. They are used for everything from diagnosing disease to treating cancer.
Like Gamma rays, X-rays are made up of photons. Actually, X-rays are very similar to Gamma rays. That's why the precautions taken when you get an X-ray at a hospital are quite similar to the precautions taken when people work around nuclear materials that emit Gamma rays. An important thing to remember about X-rays, and about other forms of radiation for that matter, is that their health effects are dose-related. In other words, the more you are exposed, the more likely some harm may result. Indeed, Paracelus, the founder of modern toxicology, said "The dose makes the poison." No where is this more true than in the case of radiation.
Kathleen Deoul: Is that why people who work around X-ray equipment in hospitals wear film badges?
Copulos: You're exactly right Kathleen. X-rays will expose film - in fact it's that property that makes them useful. Workers in hospitals wear film badges that use this property to measure the amount of radiation the worker has received through leakage from the equipment and so forth. Workers in nuclear facilities wear the same type of badge because the radiation they encounter has the same effect.
Kathleen Deoul: Is a hospital the only place where you'd encounter ionizing radiation?
Copulos: While hospitals are the most common place for exposures to ionizing radiation, they are not the only source. For example, the smoke detector in your home contains Americium, a radioactive element that emits Alpha rays. Radioactive materials can be found in a wide range of consumer products such as digital wristwatches and any product with a luminous dial. They are also used in artificial teeth and some ceramic glazes. Keep in mind, however, that these products emit tiny amounts of radiation, usually Alpha particles, and really don't pose a health hazard unless they are inadvertently ingested. Also, every time you fly in an airplane, you are exposed to cosmic rays that the atmosphere stops well before they reach ground level, and these, too, are a form of ionizing radiation.
Kathleen Deoul: So I shouldn't discard the smoke detectors in my home.
Copulos: Exactly. You stand a far greater risk of injury from a fire that would go undetected if you removed your home's smoke detector than from the tiny amount of radiation it emits.
Kathleen Deoul: Still, doesn't ionizing radiation pose some health risks?
Copulos: Certainly, and I don't mean to minimize the potential for harm. If the dose is sufficient serious health effects can occur. Radiation can damage your body's cells, cause cancer or lead to breakage in DNA strands that in turn can cause birth defects. If you get a very high dose of Gamma radiation, there can be massive tissue damage that will kill you in a few weeks. Even at lower levels of exposure, there can be long-term health consequences.
For example it is estimated by Russian authorities that approximately 4,000 survivors of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster will eventually die from the effects of radiation exposure. Others, however, place the actual figure at 25 times that number.
Swimming In A Deadly Sea:
Awash In Radiation
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Kathleen Deoul, Media Matters