NBC reporter Lester Holt and his news team have tested positive for radiation exposure. The team had spent 36 hours in the Sendai region of Japan. Upon return to Tokyo, the team was screened by a “radioactive expert” hired by NBC who found contamination on Holt’s shoes. According to Holt, the amount of radioactive contamination was “very, very minute” but detectable. Lester’s shoes “are in a plastic bag and won’t be coming home with me.”
Source: Environmental Protection Agency
It comes from outer space, the ground, and even from within our own bodies. Radiation is all around us and has been present since the birth of this planet. Radiation simply is part of our daily lives. The word, “radiation,” generally brings to mind nuclear power plants, nuclear weapons, or medical diagnostics and treatments. Nonetheless, we routinely encounter a variety of radiation sources every day, for example, smoke detectors, household appliances, electrical power lines, and even the sun.
Radiation is energy that travels in the form of waves or high speed particles and it makes up the electromagnetic spectrum. The electromagnetic spectrum is divided into two major categories: ionizing radiation and non-ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation has enough energy to break chemical bonds in molecules or remove tightly bound electrons from atoms, thus creating charged molecules or atoms (ions). There are three major types of ionizing radiation: gamma rays and x-rays, alpha particles, and beta particles. Non-ionizing radiation has enough energy to move around the atoms in a molecule or cause them to vibrate, but not enough to remove electrons.
Radioactive materials that decay spontaneously produce ionizing radiation, which has sufficient energy to strip away electrons from atoms (creating two charged ions) or to break some chemical bonds. Any living tissue in the human body can be damaged by ionizing radiation in a unique manner. The body attempts to repair the damage, but sometimes the damage is of a nature that cannot be repaired or it is too severe or widespread to be repaired. Also mistakes made in the natural repair process can lead to cancerous cells. The most common forms of ionizing radiation are alpha and beta particles, or gamma and X-rays.
What kinds of health effects does exposure to radiation cause?
In general, the amount and duration of radiation exposure affects the severity or type of health effect. There are two broad categories of health effects: stochastic and non-stochastic.
Stochastic Health Effects
Stochastic effects are associated with long-term, low-level (chronic) exposure to radiation. (“Stochastic” refers to the likelihood that something will happen.) Increased levels of exposure make these health effects more likely to occur, but do not influence the type or severity of the effect.
Cancer is considered by most people the primary health effect from radiation exposure. Simply put, cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells. Ordinarily, natural processes control the rate at which cells grow and replace themselves. They also control the body’s processes for repairing or replacing damaged tissue. Damage occurring at the cellular or molecular level, can disrupt the control processes, permitting the uncontrolled growth of cells–cancer. This is why ionizing radiation’s ability to break chemical bonds in atoms and molecules makes it such a potent carcinogen.
Other stochastic effects also occur. Radiation can cause changes in DNA, the “blueprints” that ensure cell repair and replacement produces a perfect copy of the original cell. Changes in DNA are called mutations. Sometimes the body fails to repair these mutations or even creates mutations during repair. The mutations can be teratogenic or genetic. Teratogenic mutations are caused by exposure of the fetus in the uterus and affect only the individual who was exposed. Genetic mutations are passed on to offspring.
Non-Stochastic Health Effects
Non-stochastic effects appear in cases of exposure to high levels of radiation, and become more severe as the exposure increases. Short-term, high-level exposure is referred to as ‘acute’ exposure.
Many non-cancerous health effects of radiation are non-stochastic. Unlike cancer, health effects from ‘acute’ exposure to radiation usually appear quickly. Acute health effects include burns and radiation sickness. Radiation sickness is also called ‘radiation poisoning.’ It can cause premature aging or even death. If the dose is fatal, death usually occurs within two months. The symptoms of radiation sickness include: nausea, weakness, hair loss, skin burns or diminished organ function.
Medical patients receiving radiation treatments often experience acute effects, because they are receiving relatively high “bursts” of radiation during treatment.
Is any amount of radiation safe?
There is no firm basis for setting a “safe” level of exposure above background for stochastic effects. Many sources emit radiation that is well below natural background levels. This makes it extremely difficult to isolate its stochastic effects. In setting limits, EPA makes the conservative (cautious) assumption that any increase in radiation exposure is accompanied by an increased risk of stochastic effects. Health physicists generally agree on limiting a person’s exposure beyond background radiation to about 100 mrem per year from all sources. Exceptions are occupational, medical or accidental exposures. (Medical X-rays generally deliver less than 10 mrem).
However, there do appear to be threshold exposures for the various non-stochastic effects. (Please note that the acute affects in the following table are cumulative. For example, a dose that produces damage to bone marrow will have produced changes in blood chemistry and be accompanied by nausea.)