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Chemistry LibreTexts

11.1: Natural Radioactivity

  • Page ID
    152203
  • Learning Objectives

    • Know the different sources of background radiation.
    • Describe the biological impact of ionizing radiation
    • List common sources of radiation exposure in the US.

    Background Radiation

    We are all exposed to a small amount of radiation in our daily lives. This background radiation comes from naturally occurring sources and from human-produced radiation. Exposure to x-rays and nuclear medicine isotopes, ground sources, and cosmic radiation account for almost half of the background exposure of the average American. Radon gas, formed from the decay of uranium and thorium isotopes, is responsible for a little over half the total amount of background radiation. See the table below for background sources.

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\) Sources of Background Radiation
    radon \(54\%\)
    consumer products \(3\%\)
    nuclear medicine \(4\%\)
    cosmic radiation \(8\%\)
    terrestrial \(8\%\)
    internal \(11\%\)
    x-rays \(11\%\)
    other \(1\%\)

    The Problem of Radon

    For many people, one of the largest sources of exposure to radiation is from radon gas (Rn-222). Radon-222 is an α emitter with a half–life of 3.82 days. It is one of the products of the radioactive decay series of U-238, which is found in trace amounts in soil and rocks. The radon gas that is produced slowly escapes from the ground and gradually seeps into homes and other structures above. Since it is about eight times more dense than air, radon gas accumulates in basements and lower floors, and slowly diffuses throughout buildings (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)).

    A cut-away image of the side of a house and four layers of the ground it rests on is shown, as well as a second cut-away image of a person’s head and chest cavity. The house is shown with a restroom on the second floor and a basement with a water heater as the first floor. Green arrows lead from the lowest ground layer, labeled “radon in ground water,” from the third ground layer, labeled “Bedrock” and “Fractured bedrock,” from the second layer, labeled “radon in well water,” and from the top layer, labeled “radon in soil to the inside of the basement area. In the smaller image of the torso, a green arrow is shown to enter the person’s nasal passage and travel to the lungs. This is labeled “Inhalation of radon decay products.” A small coiled, helical structure next to the torso is labeled “alpha particle” on one section where it has a starburst pattern and “Radiation damage to D N A” on another segment.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Radon-222 seeps into houses and other buildings from rocks that contain uranium-238, a radon emitter. The radon enters through cracks in concrete foundations and basement floors, stone or porous cinderblock foundations, and openings for water and gas pipes.

    Radon is found in buildings across the country, with amounts depending on where you live. The average concentration of radon inside houses in the US (1.25 pCi/L) is about three times the levels found in outside air, and about one in six houses have radon levels high enough that remediation efforts to reduce the radon concentration are recommended. Exposure to radon increases one’s risk of getting cancer (especially lung cancer), and high radon levels can be as bad for health as smoking a carton of cigarettes a day. Radon is the number one cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers and the second leading cause of lung cancer overall. Radon exposure is believed to cause over 20,000 deaths in the US per year.

    Measuring Radiation Exposure

    Several different devices are used to detect and measure radiation, including Geiger counters, scintillation counters (scintillators), and radiation dosimeters (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). Probably the best-known radiation instrument, the Geiger counter (also called the Geiger-Müller counter) detects and measures radiation. Radiation causes the ionization of the gas in a Geiger-Müller tube. The rate of ionization is proportional to the amount of radiation. A scintillation counter contains a scintillator—a material that emits light (luminesces) when excited by ionizing radiation—and a sensor that converts the light into an electric signal. Radiation dosimeters also measure ionizing radiation and are often used to determine personal radiation exposure. Commonly used types are electronic, film badge, thermoluminescent, and quartz fiber dosimeters.

    Three photographs are shown and labeled “a,” “b” and “c.” Photo a shows a Geiger counter sitting on a table. It is made up of a metal box with a read-out screen and a wire leading away from the box connected to a sensor wand. Photograph b shows a collection of tall and short vertical tubes arranged in a grouping while photograph c shows a person’s hand holding a small machine with a digital readout while standing on the edge of a roadway.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Devices such as (a) Geiger counters, (b) scintillators, and (c) dosimeters can be used to measure radiation. (credit c: modification of work by “osaMu”/Wikimedia commons).

    Radiation Damage to Cells

    The increased use of radioisotopes has led to increased concerns over the effects of these materials on biological systems (such as humans). All radioactive nuclides emit high-energy particles or electromagnetic waves. When this radiation encounters living cells, it can cause heating, break chemical bonds, or ionize molecules. The most serious biological damage results when these radioactive emissions fragment or ionize molecules. For example, alpha and beta particles emitted from nuclear decay reactions possess much higher energies than ordinary chemical bond energies. When these particles strike and penetrate matter, they produce ions and molecular fragments that are extremely reactive. The damage this does to biomolecules in living organisms can cause serious malfunctions in normal cell processes, taxing the organism’s repair mechanisms and possibly causing illness or even death (Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\)).

    A diagram is shown which has a white sphere followed by a right-facing arrow and a large sphere composed of many smaller white and green spheres. The single sphere has impacted the larger sphere. A right-facing arrow leads from the larger sphere to a pair of smaller spheres which are collections of the same white and green spheres. A starburst pattern lies between these two spheres and has three right-facing arrows leading from it to two white spheres and a circle full of ten smaller, peach-colored circles with purple dots in their centers. An arrow leads downward from this circle to a box that contains a helical shape with a starburst near its top left side and is labeled “D N A damage.” A right-facing arrow leads from this circle to a second circle, with nine smaller, peach-colored circles with purple dots in their centers and one fully purple small circle labeled “Cancer cell.” A right-facing arrow leads to a final circle, this time full of the purple cells, that is labeled “Tumor.”
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Radiation can harm biological systems by damaging the DNA of cells. If this damage is not properly repaired, the cells may divide in an uncontrolled manner and cause cancer.

    Radiation can harm either the whole body (somatic damage) or eggs and sperm (genetic damage). Its effects are more pronounced in cells that reproduce rapidly, such as the stomach lining, hair follicles, bone marrow, and embryos. This is why patients undergoing radiation therapy often feel nauseous or sick to their stomach, lose hair, have bone aches, and so on, and why particular care must be taken when undergoing radiation therapy during pregnancy.

    Ionizing vs. Nonionizing Radiation

    There is a large difference in the magnitude of the biological effects of nonionizing radiation (for example, light and microwaves) and ionizing radiation, emissions energetic enough to knock electrons out of molecules (for example, α and β particles, γ rays, X-rays, and high-energy ultraviolet radiation) (Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\)).

    <div data-mt-source="1"
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Lower frequency, lower-energy electromagnetic radiation is nonionizing, and higher frequency, higher-energy electromagnetic radiation is ionizing.

    Energy absorbed from nonionizing radiation speeds up the movement of atoms and molecules, which is equivalent to heating the sample. Although biological systems are sensitive to heat (as we might know from touching a hot stove or spending a day at the beach in the sun), a large amount of nonionizing radiation is necessary before dangerous levels are reached. Ionizing radiation, however, may cause much more severe damage by breaking bonds or removing electrons in biological molecules, disrupting their structure and function. The damage can also be done indirectly, by first ionizing H2O (the most abundant molecule in living organisms), which forms a H2O+ ion that reacts with water, forming a hydronium ion and a hydroxyl radical:

    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\).
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Ionizing radiation can (a) directly damage a biomolecule by ionizing it or breaking its bonds, or (b) create an H2O+ ion, which reacts with H2O to form a hydroxyl radical, which in turn reacts with the biomolecule, causing damage indirectly.

    Effects of Long-term Radiation Exposure on the Human Body

    The effects of radiation depend on the type, energy, and location of the radiation source, and the length of exposure. As shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\), the average person is exposed to background radiation, including cosmic rays from the sun and radon from uranium in the ground; radiation from medical exposure, including CAT scans, radioisotope tests, X-rays, and so on; and small amounts of radiation from other human activities, such as airplane flights (which are bombarded by increased numbers of cosmic rays in the upper atmosphere), radioactivity from consumer products, and a variety of radionuclides that enter our bodies when we breathe (for example, carbon-14) or through the food chain (for example, potassium-40, strontium-90, and iodine-131).

    A bar graph titled “Radiation Doses and Regulatory Limits, open parenthesis, in Millirems, close parenthesis” is shown. The y-axis is labeled “Doses in Millirems” and has values from 0 to 5000 with a break between 1000 and 5000 to indicate a different scale to the top of the graph. The y-axis is labeled corresponding to each bar. The first bar, measured to 5000 on the y-axis, is drawn in red and is labeled “Annual Nuclear Worker Doses Limit, open parenthesis, N R C, close parenthesis.” The second bar, measured to 1000 on the y-axis, is drawn in blue and is labeled “Whole Body C T” while the third bar, measured to 620 on the y-axis, is drawn in blue and is labeled “Average U period S period Annual Dose.” The fourth bar, measured to 310 on the y-axis, is drawn in blue and is labeled “U period S period Natural Background Dose” while the fifth bar, measured to 100 on the y-axis and drawn in red reads “Annual Public Dose Limit, open parenthesis, N R C, close parenthesis.” The sixth bar, measured to 40 on the y-axis, is drawn in blue and is labeled “From Your Body” while the seventh bar, measured to 30 on the y-axis and drawn in blue reads “Cosmic rays.” The eighth bar, measured to 4 on the y-axis, is drawn in blue and is labeled “Safe Drinking Water Limit, open parenthesis, E P A, close parenthesis” while the ninth bar, measured to 2.5 on the y-axis and drawn in red reads “Trans Atlantic Flight.” A legend on the graph shows that red means “Dose Limit From N R C dash licensed activity” while blue means “Radiation Doses.”
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\) The total annual radiation exposure for a person in the US is about 620 mrem. The various sources and their relative amounts are shown in this bar graph. (source: U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission).

    A short-term, sudden dose of a large amount of radiation can cause a wide range of health effects, from changes in blood chemistry to death. Short-term exposure to tens of rems of radiation will likely cause very noticeable symptoms or illness; a dose of about 500 rems is estimated to have a 50% probability of causing the death of the victim within 30 days of exposure. Exposure to radioactive emissions has a cumulative effect on the body during a person’s lifetime, which is another reason why it is important to avoid any unnecessary exposure to radiation. Health effects of short-term exposure to radiation are shown in Table \(\PageIndex{2}\).

    Table \(\PageIndex{2}\) Health Effects of Radiation
    Exposure (rem) Health Effect Time to Onset (without treatment)
    5–10 changes in blood chemistry
    50 nausea hours
    55 fatigue
    70 vomiting
    75 hair loss 2–3 weeks
    90 diarrhea
    100 hemorrhage
    400 possible death within 2 months
    1000 destruction of intestinal lining
    internal bleeding
    death 1–2 weeks
    2000 damage to central nervous system
    loss of consciousness; minutes
    death hours to days

    It is impossible to avoid some exposure to ionizing radiation. We are constantly exposed to background radiation from a variety of natural sources, including cosmic radiation, rocks, medical procedures, consumer products, and even our own atoms. We can minimize our exposure by blocking or shielding the radiation, moving farther from the source, and limiting the time of exposure.

    Summary

    • Background radiation is defined and different sources of background radiation are listed.
    • We are constantly exposed to radiation from a variety of naturally occurring and human-produced sources.
    • Various devices, including Geiger counters, scintillators, and dosimeters, are used to detect and measure radiation, and monitor radiation exposure.
    • Ionizing radiation is the most harmful because it can ionize molecules or break chemical bonds, which damages the molecule and causes malfunctions in cell processes. It can also create reactive hydroxyl radicals that damage biological molecules and disrupt physiological processes.

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