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.

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 $$1\%$$

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 $$\PageIndex{1}$$).

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.

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 $$\PageIndex{3}$$).

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.

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 $$\PageIndex{4}$$).

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:

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 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.