Exposure to radioactive materials can result in injury to human cells and cause life-threatening diseases like cancer. The properties of some radioactive materials has made it useful to medical science as it allows doctors to see internal structures of the body without having to penetrate the skin, like x-rays for example. However, radiation can be dangerous if the type of radiation used is harmful to the human body and if there is prolonged or a short but large dose of radiation exposure.
Types of Radiation
There are different types of radiation, some of which are not dangerous while others can be lethal. Radiation describes the way energy is dissipated in terms of wave or particle form. As a broad term, radiation should not be confused with radioactivity because heat can be radiated yet it is not dangerous to human beings at low temperatures. Similarly radioactive energy is also radiated but depending on the type, there is a risk of serious diseases and injury.
Radiation can simply be divided into ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. Radioactive materials are a source of ionizing radiation because they emit particles (particulate radiation) and waves that can penetrate certain substances. There are three types of ionizing radiation that is of concern in terms of a person’s health :
- Alpha particles which have a low penetrating power. These particles can be stopped by a sheet of paper.
- Beta particles which have a medium penetrating power. These particles can be stopped by certain metals and plastics like perspex.
- Gamma rays which have a high penetrating power. These rays can be stopped by lead and thick layers of concrete.
All forms of ionizing radiation can be dangerous but due to the low penetrating power of alpha particles, which can even be stopped by skin, the health concerns in terms of this type of radiation is not significant unless a person is working with the materials over a long period of time.
Sources of Radiation
There are many sources of radiated energy waves – heat waves (fires, electric heaters, stoves), radio waves (cell phones, radio transmitters), light waves (the Sun, electric lamps) including ultraviolet and infrared light and radioactive materials which emit alpha and beta particles or gamma rays.
Exposure to radiation either causes contamination or irradiation. Contamination means that a substance had made contact with a radioactive material and has retained some of it. Irradiation on the other hand means that you have been exposed to radiation yet not contaminated with the radioactive material.
In terms of nuclear power plants and x-ray machines, the public concern is about irradiation rather than contamination. Workers, however, will be concerned about both contamination and irradiation. Even if a person is not exposed to these radioactive materials, the effects of irradiation with large doses of radiation can be detrimental to one’s health. However, it depends on the dosage and period of exposure as well as the type of radiation that will determine the dangers of radiation exposure.
A short but large dose of radiation is sufficient to cause radiation poisoning. Medical devices like x-ray machines emit very low doses of radiation so the danger is minimal even if you have many x-rays.
Radiation Poisoning Symptoms
Radiation poisoning occurs when you are exposed to a high dose of radiation, even if it is for a short time. This is also known as acute radiation sickness or acute radiation syndrome. The exposure to the radiation damages certain structures in the human cells and affects DNA which can cause abnormal and excessive cell replication which we know as cancer.
Some of the symptoms of radiation poisoning includes :
These are the early symptoms which can develop within a few minutes to hours after exposure to high doses of radiation. Over time, days and weeks, the later symptoms associated with radiation poisoning becomes evident.
- Bloody vomit and diarrhoea
- Hair loss
- Repeated infections
- Poor wound healing
If you suspect that you are experiencing symptoms from radiation poisoning, you should speak to a doctor who will conduct tests to confirm this.