Skip to main content
Chemistry LibreTexts

11.7: Detecting and Measuring Radiation

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    Learning Objectives
    • Define units for measuring radiation exposure

    Radioactivity is determined by measuring the number of decay processes per unit time. Perhaps the easiest way is simply to determine the number of counts/minute, with each count measuring a single decay process, such as the emission of an \(\alpha\)-particle. A particular isotope may have an activity of 5,000 counts/minute \(\left( \text{cpm} \right)\) while another isotope might only have \(250 \: \text{cpm}\). The amount of activity gives a rough indication of the amount of the radioisotope present - the higher the activity, the more radioactivity isotope in the sample.

    Two images are shown. The first, labeled “Rate of radioactive decay measured in becquerels or curies,” shows a red sphere with ten red squiggly arrows facing away from it in a 360 degree circle. The second image shows the head and torso of a woman wearing medical scrubs with a badge on her chest. The caption to the badge reads “Film badge or dosimeter measures tissue damage exposure in rems or sieverts” while a phrase under this image states “Absorbed dose measured in grays or rads.”
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Different units are used to measure the rate of emission from a radioactive source, the energy that is absorbed from the source, and the amount of damage the absorbed radiation does. (CC BY 4.0; OpenStax)

    Measurement of exposure to radioactivity is important for anyone who deals with radioactive materials on a regular basis. Perhaps the simplest device is a personal dosimeter - a film badge that will fog up when exposed to radiation (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). The amount of fogging is proportional to the amount of radiation present. These devices are not very sensitive to low levels of radiation. More sensitive systems use crystals that respond in some way to radioactivity by registering the number of emissions in a given time. These systems tend to be more sensitive and more reliable than film badges.

    When alpha, beta or gamma particles collides with a target, some of the energy in the particle is transferred to the target, typically resulting in the promotion of an electron to an “excited state”. In many “targets”, especially gasses, this results in ionization. A Geiger counter (or Geiger-Müller counter) takes advantage of this to detect these particles (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). In a Geiger tube, the electron produced by ionization of a captive gas travels to the anode and the change in voltage is detected by the attached circuitry.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): (left) Geiger counter with pancake type probe. Public Domain; TimVickers via Wikipedia). (right) Schematic of a Geiger-Müller counter using an "end window" tube for low penetration radiation. A loudspeaker is also used for indication. (CC-BY-SA-3.0 Svjo-2 vai Wikipedia).

    Most counters of this type are designed to emit an audible “click” in response to the change in voltage, and to also show it on a digital or analog meter.

    We previously used mass to indicate the amount of radioactive substance present. However, this is only one of several units used to express amounts of radiation. Some units describe the number of radioactive events occurring per unit time, while others express the amount of a person's exposure to radiation. A variety of units are used to measure various aspects of radiation (Table \(\PageIndex{1}\)).

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): Units Used for Measuring Radiation
    Measurement Purpose Unit Quantity Measured Description
    activity of source becquerel (Bq) radioactive decays or emissions amount of sample that undergoes 1 decay/second
    curie (Ci) amount of sample that undergoes \(\mathrm{3.7 \times 10^{10}\; decays/second}\)
    absorbed dose gray (Gy) energy absorbed per kg of tissue 1 Gy = 1 J/kg tissue
    radiation absorbed dose (rad) 1 rad = 0.01 J/kg tissue
    biologically effective dose sievert (Sv) tissue damage Sv = RBE × Gy
    roentgen equivalent for humans (rem) Rem = RBE × rad

    The roentgen equivalent for humans (rem) is the unit for radiation damage that is used most frequently in medicine (1 rem = 1 Sv). Note that the tissue damage units (rem or Sv) includes the energy of the radiation dose (rad or Gy) along with a biological factor referred to as the RBE (for relative biological effectiveness) that is an approximate measure of the relative damage done by the radiation. These are related by:

    \[ \text{number of rems}=\text{RBE} \times \text{number of rads} \label{Eq2}\]

    with RBE approximately 10 for α radiation, 2(+) for protons and neutrons, and 1 for β and γ radiation.

    The Becquerel Unit

    Perhaps the direct way of reporting radioactivity is the number of radioactive decays per second. One decay per second is called one becquerel (Bq). Even in a small mass of radioactive material, however, there are thousands upon thousands of decays or disintegrations per second. The becquerel is named after Henri Becquerel, who discovered radioactivity in 1896.

    The Curie Unit

    The curie \(\left( \text{Ci} \right)\) is one measure of the rate of decay (named after Pierre and Marie Curie). One curie is equivalent to \(3.7 \times 10^{10}\) disintegrations per second. Since this is obviously a large and unwieldy number, radiation is often expressed in millicuries or microcuries (still very large numbers). The curie is named after Polish scientist Marie Curie, who performed some of the initial investigations into radioactive phenomena in the early 1900s. The curie can be used in place of grams to describe quantities of radioactive material. As an example, the amount of americium in an average smoke detector has an activity of 0.9 µCi.

    The Roentgen Unit

    There are many different ways to measure radiation exposure, or the dose. The roentgen (R), which measures the amount of energy absorbed by dry air, can be used to describe quantitative exposure.Named after the German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen (1845–1923; Nobel Prize in Physics, 1901), who discovered x-rays. The roentgen is actually defined as the amount of radiation needed to produce an electrical charge of 2.58 × 10−4 C in 1 kg of dry air. Damage to biological tissues, however, is proportional to the amount of energy absorbed by tissues, not air.

    The Rad Unit

    The most common unit used to measure the effects of radiation on biological tissue is the rad (radiation absorbed dose); the SI equivalent is the gray (Gy). The rad is defined as the amount of radiation that causes 0.01 J of energy to be absorbed by 1 kg of matter, and the gray is defined as the amount of radiation that causes 1 J of energy to be absorbed per kilogram:

    \[1\: rad = 0.010 \: J/kg \quad 1\: Gy = 1\: J/kg \label{Eq3}\]

    Thus a 70 kg human who receives a dose of 1.0 rad over his or her entire body absorbs 0.010 J/70 kg = 1.4 × 10−4 J, or 0.14 mJ. To put this in perspective, 0.14 mJ is the amount of energy transferred to your skin by a 3.8 × 10−5 g droplet of boiling water. Because the energy of the droplet of water is transferred to a relatively large area of tissue, it is harmless. A radioactive particle, however, transfers its energy to a single molecule, which makes it the atomic equivalent of a bullet fired from a high-powered rifle.

    The Gray Unit

    Another unit of radiation absorption is the gray (Gy):

    1 Gy = 100 rad

    The rad is more common. To get an idea of the amount of energy this represents, consider that the absorption of 1 rad by 70,000 g of H2O (approximately the same mass as a 150 lb person) would increase its temperature by only 0.002°C. This may not seem like a lot, but it is enough energy to break about 1 × 1021 molecular C–C bonds in a person’s body. That amount of damage would not be desirable.

    The Rem Unit

    Because α particles have a much higher mass and charge than β particles or γ rays, the difference in mass between α and β particles is analogous to being hit by a bowling ball instead of a table tennis ball traveling at the same speed. Thus the amount of tissue damage caused by 1 rad of α particles is much greater than the damage caused by 1 rad of β particles or γ rays. Thus a unit called the rem (roentgen equivalent in human) was devised to describe the actual amount of tissue damage caused by a given amount of radiation. The number of rems of radiation is equal to the number of rads multiplied by the RBE (relative biological effectiveness) factor:

    \[em = rad × RBE\]

    where RBE is the relative biological effectiveness factor is a number greater than or equal to 1 that takes into account the type of radioactive emission and sometimes the type of tissue being exposed. For beta particles, RBE factor equals 1. For alpha particles striking most tissues, the factor is 10, but for eye tissue, the factor is 30. Most radioactive emissions that people are exposed to are on the order of a few dozen millirems (mrem) or less; a medical X ray is about 20 mrem.

    The Sievert Unit

    A sievert (Sv) is related to the rem unit and is defined as 100 rem. Because actual radiation doses tend to be very small, most measurements are reported in millirems (1 mrem = 10−3 rem).

    Assessing the Impact of Radiation Exposure

    One of the more controversial public policy issues debated today is whether the radiation exposure from artificial sources, when combined with exposure from natural sources, poses a significant risk to human health. The effects of single radiation doses of different magnitudes on humans are listed in Table \(\PageIndex{2}\). Because of the many factors involved in radiation exposure (length of exposure, intensity of the source, and energy and type of particle), it is difficult to quantify the specific dangers of one radioisotope versus another. Nonetheless, some general conclusions regarding the effects of radiation exposure are generally accepted as valid.

    Table \(\PageIndex{2}\): The Effects of a Single Radiation Dose on a 70 kg Human
    Dose (rem) Symptoms/Effects
    < 5 no observable effect
    5–20 possible chromosomal damage
    20–100 temporary reduction in white blood cell count
    50–100 temporary sterility in men (up to a year)
    100–200 mild radiation sickness, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue; immune system suppressed; bone growth in children retarded
    > 300 permanent sterility in women
    > 500 fatal to 50% within 30 days; destruction of bone marrow and intestine
    > 3000 fatal within hours

    Radiation doses of 600 rem and higher are invariably fatal, while a dose of 500 rem kills half the exposed subjects within 30 days. Smaller doses (≤ 50 rem) appear to cause only limited health effects, even though they correspond to tens of years of natural radiation. This does not, however, mean that such doses have no ill effects; they may cause long-term health problems, such as cancer or genetic changes that affect offspring. The possible detrimental effects of the much smaller doses attributable to artificial sources (< 100 mrem/yr) are more difficult to assess.

    The tissues most affected by large, whole-body exposures are bone marrow, intestinal tissue, hair follicles, and reproductive organs, all of which contain rapidly dividing cells. The susceptibility of rapidly dividing cells to radiation exposure explains why cancers are often treated by radiation. Because cancer cells divide faster than normal cells, they are destroyed preferentially by radiation. Long-term radiation-exposure studies on fruit flies show a linear relationship between the number of genetic defects and both the magnitude of the dose and the exposure time. In contrast, similar studies on mice show a much lower number of defects when a given dose of radiation is spread out over a long period of time rather than received all at once. Which of the two is applicable to humans?

    According to one hypothesis, mice have very low risk from low doses because their bodies have ways of dealing with the damage caused by natural radiation. At much higher doses, however, their natural repair mechanisms are overwhelmed, leading to irreversible damage. Because mice are biochemically much more similar to humans than are fruit flies, many scientists believe that this model also applies to humans. In contrast, the linear model assumes that all exposure to radiation is intrinsically damaging and suggests that stringent regulation of low-level radiation exposure is necessary. Which view is more accurate? The answer—while yet unknown—has extremely important consequences for regulating radiation exposure.


    The SI unit for rate of radioactive decay is the becquerel (Bq), with 1 Bq = 1 disintegration per second. The curie (Ci) and millicurie (mCi) are much larger units and are frequently used in medicine (1 curie = 1 Ci = \(3.7 \times 10^{10}\) disintegrations per second). The SI unit for measuring radiation dose is the gray (Gy), with 1 Gy = 1 J of energy absorbed per kilogram of tissue. In medical applications, the radiation absorbed dose (rad) is more often used (1 rad = 0.01 Gy; 1 rad results in the absorption of 0.01 J/kg of tissue). The SI unit measuring tissue damage caused by radiation is the sievert (Sv). This takes into account both the energy and the biological effects of the type of radiation involved in the radiation dose.

    11.7: Detecting and Measuring Radiation is shared under a collection 3.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.