Ionizing radiation consists of highly-energetic particles or waves that can detach (ionize) at least one electron from an atom or molecule. Ionizing ability depends on the energy of the impinging individual particles or waves, and not on their number. A large flood of particles or waves generally will not cause ionization if these particles or waves do not carry enough energy to be ionizing.
Examples of ionizing radiation are energetic beta particles, neutrons, and alpha particles. The ability of electromagnetic waves (photons) to ionize an atom or molecule varies across the spectrum. X-rays and gamma rays can ionize almost any molecule or atom; far ultraviolet light can ionize many atoms and molecules; near ultraviolet and visible light are ionizing to very few molecules; microwaves and radio waves are non-ionizing radiation. Many molecules that are ionized by visible light react nearly spontaneously - unless protected by other molecular materials that block the visible spectrum. Examples include photographic film and some of the molecules involved in photosynthesis.
Ionizing radiation has many practical uses in medicine, research, construction, and other areas, but presents a health hazard if used improperly. If enough ionizations occur in a biological system, they can be destructive, by such means as causing DNA damage in individual cells. Extensive doses of ionizing radiation have also been shown to have a possible mutating effect on the victim's gametes. Both helpful and harmful aspects of ionizing radiation are discussed below.
In order for a particle to be ionizing, it must both have a high enough energy and interact with the atoms of a target. Photons interact strongly with charged particles, so photons of sufficiently high energy also are ionizing. The energy at which this begins to happen with photons (light) is in the ultraviolet region of the electromagnetic spectrum; sunburn is one of the effects of ionization. Charged particles such as electrons, positrons, and alpha particles also interact strongly with electrons of an atom or molecule. Neutrons, on the other hand, do not interact strongly with electrons, and so they cannot directly cause ionization by this mechanism. However, fast neutrons will interact with the protons in hydrogen (in the manner of a billiard ball hitting another, sending it away with all of the first ball's energy of motion), and this mechanism produces proton radiation (fast protons). These protons are ionizing because of their strong interaction with electrons in matter. A neutron can also interact with an atomic nucleus, depending on the nucleus and the neutron's velocity; these reactions happen with fast neutrons and slow neutrons, depending on the situation. Neutron interactions in this manner often produce radioactive nuclei, which produce ionizing radiation when they decay, they then can produce chain reactions in the mass that is decaying, sometimes causing a larger effect of ionization.
In the picture at left, gamma rays are represented by wavy lines, charged particles and neutrons by straight lines. The little circles show where ionization processes occur.
An ionization event normally produces a positive atomic ion and an electron. High-energy beta particles may produce bremsstrahlung when passing through matter, or secondary electrons (δ-electrons); both can ionize in turn.
Unlike alpha or beta particles (see particle radiation), gamma rays do not ionize all along their path, but rather interact with matter in one of three ways: the photoelectric effect, the Compton effect, and pair production. By way of example, the figure shows Compton effect: two Compton scatterings that happen sequentially. In every scattering event, the gamma ray transfers energy to an electron, and it continues on its path in a different direction and with reduced energy.
In the same figure, the neutron collides with a proton of the target material, and then becomes a fast recoil proton that ionizes in turn. At the end of its path, the neutron is captured by a nucleus in an (n,γ)-reaction that leads to a neutron capture photon.
The negatively-charged electrons and positively charged ions created by ionizing radiation may cause damage in living tissue. If the dose is sufficient, the effect may be seen almost immediately, in the form of radiation poisoning. Lower doses may cause cancer or other long-term problems. The effect of the very low doses encountered in normal circumstances (from both natural and artificial sources, like cosmic rays, medical X-rays and nuclear power plants) is a subject of current debate. A 2005 report released by the National Research Council (the BEIR VII report, summarized in ) indicated that the overall cancer risk associated with background sources of radiation was relatively low.
Radioactive materials usually release alpha particles, which are the nuclei of helium, beta particles, which are quickly moving electrons or positrons, or gamma rays. Alpha and beta particles can often be stopped by a piece of paper or a sheet of aluminium, respectively. They cause most damage when they are emitted inside the human body. Gamma rays are less ionizing than either alpha or beta particles, and protection against gammas requires thicker shielding. The damage they produce is similar to that caused by X-rays, and include burns and also cancer, through mutations. Human biology resists germline mutation by either correcting the changes in the DNA or inducing apoptosis in the mutated cell.
Non-ionizing radiation is thought to be essentially harmless below the levels that cause heating. Ionizing radiation is dangerous in direct exposure, although the degree of danger is a subject of debate. Humans and animals can also be exposed to ionizing radiation internally: if radioactive isotopes are present in the environment, they may be taken into the body. For example, radioactive iodine is treated as normal iodine by the body and used by the thyroid; its accumulation there often leads to thyroid cancer. Some radioactive elements also bioaccumulate.
Ionizing radiation has many uses, such as to kill cancerous cells. However, although ionizing radiation has many applications, overuse can be hazardous to human health. For example, at one time, assistants in shoe shops used X-rays to check a child's shoe size, but this practice was halted when it was discovered that ionizing radiation was dangerous.
Since ionizing radiations can penetrate matter, they are used for a variety of measuring methods.Radiography by means of gamma or X rays
In biology, radiation is mainly used for sterilization, and enhancing mutations. For example, mutations may be induced by radiation to produce new or improved species. A very promising field is the sterile insect technique, where male insects are sterilized and liberated in the chosen field, so that they have no descendants, and the population is reduced.
Radiation is also useful in sterilizing medical hardware or food. The advantage for medical hardware is that the object may be sealed in plastic before sterilization. For food, there are strict regulations to prevent the occurrence of induced radioactivity. The growth of a seedling may be enhanced by radiation, but excessive radiation will hinder growth.
Tracer methods are used in nuclear medicine in a way analogous to the technical uses mentioned above.
The Earth, and all living things on it, are constantly bombarded by radiation from outside our solar system. This cosmic radiation consists of positively-charged ions from protons to iron nuclei. The energy of this radiation can far exceed that which humans can create even in the largest particle accelerators. This radiation interacts in the atmosphere to create secondary radiation that rains down, including x-rays, muons, protons, alpha particles, pions, electrons, and neutrons.
The dose from cosmic radiation is largely from muons, neutrons, and electrons, with a dose rate that varies in different parts of the world and based largely on the geomagnetic field, altitude, and solar cycle. The cosmic-radiation dose rate on airplanes is so high that, according to the United Nations UNSCEAR 2000 Report (see links at bottom), airline flight crew workers receive more dose on average than any other worker, including those in nuclear power plants.
While most of the Sun's output consists of light (solar radiation), particle radiation is also produced and varies with the solar cycle. These particles are mostly protons with relatively low energies (10-100 keV). Their average composition is similar to that of the Sun itself. This represents significantly lower energy particles than come from cosmic rays. Solar particles vary widely in their intensity and spectrum, increasing in strength after some solar events such as solar flares. Further, an increase in the intensity of solar cosmic rays is often followed by a decrease in the galactic cosmic rays, called a Forbush decrease after their discoverer, the physicist Scott Forbush. These decreases are due to the solar wind which carries the Sun's magnetic field out further to shield the earth more thoroughly from cosmic radiation.
The ionizing component of solar radiation is negligible relative to other forms of radiation on Earth's surface.
The average exposure for Americans is about 360 mrem (3.6 mSv) per year, 81 percent of which comes from natural sources of radiation. The remaining 19 percent results from exposure to human-made radiation sources such as medical X-rays, most of which is deposited in people who have CAT scans. This compares with the average dose received by people in the UK of about 2.2 mSv. As already mentioned, an important source of natural radiation is radon gas, which seeps continuously from bedrock but can, because of its high density, accumulate in poorly ventilated houses.
The background rate for radiation varies considerably with location, being as low as 1.5 mSv/a (1.5 mSv per year) in some areas and over 100 mSv/a in others. People in some parts of Ramsar, a city in northern Iran, receive an annual absorbed dose from background radiation that is up to 260 mSv/a. Despite having lived for many generations in these high background areas, inhabitants of Ramsar show no significant cytogenetic differences compared to people in normal background areas. This has led to the suggestion that high but steady levels of radiation are easier for humans to sustain than sudden radiation bursts.
Medical procedures, such as diagnostic X-rays, nuclear medicine, and radiation therapy are by far the most significant source of human-made radiation exposure to the general public. Some of the major radionuclides used are I-131, Tc-99, Co-60, Ir-192, and Cs-137. These are rarely released into the environment. The public also is exposed to radiation from consumer products, such as tobacco (polonium-210), building materials, combustible fuels (gas, coal, etc.), ophthalmic glass, televisions, luminous watches and dials (tritium), airport X-ray systems, smoke detectors (americium), road construction materials, electron tubes, fluorescent lamp starters, and lantern mantles (thorium).
Of lesser magnitude, members of the public are exposed to radiation from the nuclear fuel cycle, which includes the entire sequence from mining and milling of uranium to the disposal of the spent fuel. The effects of such exposure have not been reliably measured due to the extremely low doses involved. Estimates of exposure are low enough that proponents of nuclear power liken them to the mutagenic power of wearing trousers for two extra minutes per year (because heat causes mutation). Opponents use a cancer per dose model to assert that such activities cause several hundred cases of cancer per year.
In a nuclear war, gamma rays from fallout of nuclear weapons would probably cause the largest number of casualties. Immediately downwind of targets, doses would exceed 300 Gy per hour. As a reference, 4.5 Gy (around 15,000 times the average annual background rate) is fatal to half of a normal population, without medical treatment.
Occupationally exposed individuals are exposed according to the sources with which they work. The radiation exposure of these individuals is carefully monitored with the use of pocket-pen-sized instruments called dosimeters.
Other observations at the tissue level are more complicated. These include:
Radiation hormesis is the unproven theory that a low level of ionizing radiation (i.e. near the level of Earth's natural background radiation) helps "immunize" cells against DNA damage from other causes (such as free radicals or larger doses of ionizing radiation), and decreases the risk of cancer. The theory proposes that such low levels activate the body's DNA repair mechanisms, causing higher levels of cellular DNA-repair proteins to be present in the body, improving the body's ability to repair DNA damage. This assertion is very difficult to prove (using, for example, statistical cancer studies) because the effects of very low ionizing radiation levels are too small to be statistically measured amid the "noise" of normal cancer rates.
Therefore, the idea of radiation hormesis is considered unproven by regulatory bodies, which generally use the standard "linear, no threshold" (LNT) model, which states that risk of cancer is directly proportional to the dose level of ionizing radiation. The LNT model is safer for regulatory purposes because it assumes worst-case damage due to ionizing radiation; therefore, if regulations are based on it, workers might be over-protected, but they will never be under-protected.
At high ionizing radiation levels, such as the acute doses received near the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bomb blasts, the risk of cancer does increase roughly linearly with dose, which is the origin of the LNT model. Thus, there is a consensus that the LNT method should continue to be used because it is safer from a regulatory perspective and because the effects of very low radiation doses are too small to be measured statistically. See the National Academies Press book..
The effects of acute events are more easily studied than those of chronic exposure.
Cancers associated with high dose exposure include leukemia, thyroid, breast, bladder, colon, liver, lung, esophagus, ovarian, multiple myeloma, and stomach cancers. United States Department of Health and Human Services literature also suggests a possible association between ionizing radiation exposure and prostate, nasal cavity/sinuses, pharyngeal and laryngeal, and pancreatic cancer.
The period of time between radiation exposure and the detection of cancer is known as the latent period. Those cancers that may develop as a result of radiation exposure are indistinguishable from those that occur naturally or as a result of exposure to other chemical carcinogens. Furthermore, National Cancer Institute literature indicates that other chemical and physical hazards and lifestyle factors, such as smoking, alcohol consumption, and diet, significantly contribute to many of these same diseases.
Although radiation may cause cancer at high doses and high dose rates, public health data regarding lower levels of exposure, below about 1,000 mrem (10 mSv), are harder to interpret. To assess the health impacts of lower radiation doses, researchers rely on models of the process by which radiation causes cancer; several models have emerged which predict differing levels of risk.
Studies of occupational workers exposed to chronic low levels of radiation, above normal background, have provided mixed evidence regarding cancer and transgenerational effects. Cancer results, although uncertain, are consistent with estimates of risk based on atomic bomb survivors and suggest that these workers do face a small increase in the probability of developing leukemia and other cancers. One of the most recent and extensive studies of workers was published by Cardis et al. in 2005
The linear dose-response model suggests that any increase in dose, no matter how small, results in an incremental increase in risk. The linear no-threshold model (LNT) hypothesis is accepted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the EPA and its validity has been reaffirmed by a National Academy of Sciences Committee. (See the BEIR VII report, summarized in ) Under this model, about 1% of a population would develop cancer in their lifetime as a result of ionizing radiation from background levels of natural and man-made sources.
Ionizing radiation damages tissue by causing ionization, which disrupts molecules directly and also produces highly reactive free radicals, which attack nearby cells. The net effect is that biological molecules suffer local disruption; this may exceed the body's capacity to repair the damage and may also cause mutations in cells currently undergoing replication.
Approximately 134 plant workers and fire fighters engaged at the Chernobyl power plant received high radiation doses (70,000 to 1,340,000 mrem or 700 to 13,400 mSv) and suffered from acute radiation sickness. Of these, 28 died from their radiation injuries.
Longer term effects of the Chernobyl accident have also been studied. There is a clear link (see the UNSCEAR 2000 Report, Volume 2: Effects) between the Chernobyl accident and the unusually large number, approximately 1,800, of thyroid cancers reported in contaminated areas, mostly in children. These were fatal in some cases. Other health effects of the Chernobyl accident are subject to current debate.
Although the SI unit of radiation dose equivalent is the sievert, chronic radiation levels and standards are still often given in millirems, 1/1000th of a rem (1 mrem = 0.01 mSv).
The following table includes some short-term dosages for comparison purposes.
|0.001-0.01||Hourly||Cosmic ray dose on high-altitude flight, depends on position and solar sunspot phase.|
|0.01||Annual||USA dose from nuclear fuel and nuclear power plants|
|0.01||Daily||Natural background radiation, including radon|
|0.1||Annual||Average USA dose from consumer products|
|0.15||Annual||USA EPA cleanup standard|
|0.25||Annual||USA NRC cleanup standard for individual sites/sources|
|0.27||Annual||USA dose from natural cosmic radiation (0.16 coastal plain, 0.63 eastern Rocky Mountains)|
|0.28||Annual||USA dose from natural terrestrial sources|
|0.39||Annual||Global level of human internal radiation due to radioactive potassium|
|0.46||Acute||Estimated largest off-site dose possible from March 28 1979 Three Mile Island accident|
|0.48||Day||USA NRC public area exposure limit|
|0.66||Annual||Average USA dose from human-made sources|
|1||Annual||Limit of dose from all DOE facilities to a member of the public who is not a radiation worker|
|1.1||Annual||1980 average USA radiation worker occupational dose|
|2||Annual|| USA average medical and natural background |
Human internal radiation due to radon, varies with radon levels
|2.2||Acute||Average dose from upper gastrointestinal diagnostic X-ray series|
|3||Annual||USA average dose from all natural sources|
|3.66||Annual||USA average from all sources, including medical diagnostic radiation doses|
|few||Annual||Estimate of cobalt-60 contamination within about 0.5 mile of dirty bomb|
|5||Annual|| USA NRC occupational limit for minors (10% of adult limit)|
USA NRC limit for visitors
Orvieto town, Italy, natural
|5||Pregnancy||USA NRC occupational limit for pregnant women|
|6.4||Annual||High Background Radiation Area (HBRA) of Yangjiang, China|
|7.6||Annual||Fountainhead Rock Place, Santa Fe, NM natural|
|10–50||Acute||USA EPA nuclear accident emergency action level|
|50||Annual||USA NRC occupational limit (10 CFR 20)|
|100||Acute||USA EPA acute dose level estimated to increase cancer risk 0.8%|
|120||30 years||Exposure, long duration, Ural mountains, lower limit, lower cancer mortality rate|
|150||Annual||USA NRC occupational eye lens exposure limit|
|175||Annual||Guarapari, Brazil natural radiation sources|
|250||Acute||USA EPA voluntary maximum dose for emergency non-life-saving work|
|260||Annual||Ramsar, Iran, natural background peak dose|
|500||Annual|| USA NRC occupational whole skin, limb skin, or single organ exposure limit|
|500||30 years||Exposure, long duration, Ural mountains, upper limit (exposed population lower cancer mortality rate)|
|750||Acute||USA EPA voluntary maximum dose for emergency life-saving work|
|500-1000||Acute|| Low-level radiation sickness due to short-term exposure|
|500-1000||Detonation||World War II nuclear bomb victims|
|4500-5000||Acute||LD50 in humans (from radiation poisoning), with medical treatment.|
Dosimeters measure an absolute dose received over a period of time. Ion-chamber dosimeters resemble pens, and can be clipped to one's clothing. Film-badge dosimeters enclose a piece of photographic film, which will become exposed as radiation passes through it. Ion-chamber dosimeters must be periodically recharged, and the result logged. Film-badge dosimeters must be developed as photographic emulsion so the exposures can be counted and logged; once developed, they are discarded. Another type of dosimeter is the TLD (Thermoluminescent Dosimeter). These dosimeters contain crystals that emit visible light when heated, in direct proportion to their total radiation exposure. Like ion-chamber dosimeters, TLDs can be re-used after they have been 'read'.
There are four standard ways to limit exposure:
Time: For people who are exposed to radiation in addition to natural background radiation, limiting or minimizing the exposure time will reduce the dose from the radiation source.
Distance: Radiation intensity decreases sharply with distance, according to an inverse square law.
Shielding: Barriers of lead, concrete, or water give effective protection from radiation formed of energetic particles such as gamma rays and neutrons. Some radioactive materials are stored or handled underwater or by remote control in rooms constructed of thick concrete or lined with lead. There are special plastic shields which stop beta particles and air will stop alpha particles. The effectiveness of a material in shielding radiation is determined by its halve value thicknesses, the thickness of material that reduces the radiation by half. This value is a function of the material itself and the energy and type of ionizing radiation.
Containment: Radioactive materials are confined in the smallest possible space and kept out of the environment. Radioactive isotopes for medical use, for example, are dispensed in closed handling facilities, while nuclear reactors operate within closed systems with multiple barriers which keep the radioactive materials contained. Rooms have a reduced air pressure so that any leaks occur into the room and not out of it.
In a nuclear war, an effective fallout shelter reduces human exposure at least 1,000 times. Most people can accept doses as high as 1 Gy, distributed over several months, although with increased risk of cancer later in life. Other civil defense measures can help reduce exposure of populations by reducing ingestion of isotopes and occupational exposure during war time. One of these available measures could be the use of potassium iodide (KI) tablets which effectively block the uptake of dangerous radioactive iodine into the human thyroid gland.