Protecting persons,
property and the environment
Protecting persons,
property and the environment

Ionizing radiation, health effects and protective measures

Key facts

  • Ionizing radiation is a type of energy released by atoms in the form of electromagnetic waves or particles.
  • People are exposed to natural sources of ionizing radiation, such as in soil, water, and vegetation, as well as in human-made sources, such as x-rays and medical devices.
  • Ionizing radiation has many beneficial applications, including uses in medicine, industry, agriculture and research.
  • As the use of ionizing radiation increases, so does the potential for health hazards if not properly used or contained.
  • Acute health effects such as skin burns or acute radiation syndrome can occur when doses of radiation exceed certain levels.
  • Low doses of ionizing radiation can increase the risk of longer term effects such as cancer.
What is ionizing radiation?

A form of radiation, which includes alpha particles, beta particles, gamma rays, x-rays, neutrons, high-speed electrons, high-speed protons, and other particles capable of producing ions.

When ionizing radiation passes through material such as air, water, or living tissue, it deposits enough energy to produce ions by breaking molecular bonds and displace (or remove) electrons from atoms or molecules. This electron displacement may lead to changes in living cells. Given this ability, ionizing radiation has a number of beneficial uses, including treating cancer or sterilizing medical equipment. However, ionizing radiation is potentially harmful if not used correctly, and high doses may result in severe skin or tissue damage.

Ionizing radiation is depicted on the right side of the electromagnetic spectrum in the figure below.

A familiar example of ionizing radiation is that of x-rays, which can penetrate our body and reveal pictures of our bones. We say that x-rays are “ionizing,” meaning that they have the unique capability to remove electrons from atoms and molecules in the matter through which they pass. Ionizing activity can alter molecules within the cells of our body. That action may cause eventual harm (such as cancer). Intense exposures to ionizing radiation may produce skin or tissue damage.

How much ionizing radiation am I exposed to?

We are exposed to low levels of ionizing radiation every day. Ionizing radiation can fall into two categories: natural and manmade.

Ionizing Radiation from Natural Sources

Ionizing radiation that comes from natural sources is typically at low levels. This means that the usual amount of ionizing radiation from natural sources absorbed by our bodies (dose) is small.

These low levels of exposure vary with location, altitude and type of building materials used in home construction. You may also be exposed to the radioactive gas radon if your house or building has a leaky foundation.

In nature, sources of ionizing radiation include:

  • Radiation from space (cosmic and solar radiation)
  • Radiation from the earth (terrestrial radiation)
  • Radon
  • Radiation from building materials
Ionizing Radiation from Manmade Sources

Every day, we use Ionizing radiation to help us live healthy lives. Ionizing radiation is found in smoke detectors, used to disinfect medical instruments and blood, and to perform many other tasks in our daily lives. It is also a byproduct of nuclear power generation.

Our main exposure to ionizing radiation in manmade sources is through the use of diagnostic medical exams.

Medical exams that use ionizing radiation include:

  • X-rays
  • CT or CAT (computed tomography) scans
  • PET (positron emission tomography) scans
  • Fluoroscopy
  • Nuclear medicine procedures
Radiation sources

People are exposed to natural radiation sources as well as human-made sources on a daily basis. Natural radiation comes from many sources including more than 60 naturally-occurring radioactive materials found in soil, water and air. Radon, a naturally-occurring gas, emanates from rock and soil and is the main source of natural radiation. Every day, people inhale and ingest radionuclides from air, food and water.

People are also exposed to natural radiation from cosmic rays, particularly at high altitude. On average, 80% of the annual dose of background radiation that a person receives is due to naturally occurring terrestrial and cosmic radiation sources. Background radiation levels vary geographically due to geological differences. Exposure in certain areas can be more than 200 times higher than the global average.

Human exposure to radiation also comes from human-made sources ranging from nuclear power generation to medical uses of radiation for diagnosis or treatment. Today, the most common human-made sources of ionizing radiation are medical devices, including X-ray machines.

What is the risk from exposure to ionizing radiation?

Ionizing radiation can penetrate the human body and the radiation energy can be absorbed in tissue. This has the potential to cause harmful effects to people, especially at high levels of exposure.

Natural Sources

Natural sources of ionizing radiation usually release ionizing radiation at low levels, which also means the amounts of radiation absorbed by our bodies (doses) is usually small. Natural sources of ionizing radiation include radioactive elements that are naturally in our body. For example, a very small fraction of the potassium in our bodies is radioactive.

Radon, however, is a natural radioactive gas found in rock formations that can release higher levels of radiation that can pose health risks. The levels of radon in your home or building depend on a variety of factors. You can test your home or building to determine whether you or your family is at risk of high levels of radon exposure.

Manmade Sources

Medical diagnostic exams are the main manmade source of ionizing radiation exposure in the South Africa. The goal of medical diagnostic imaging is for the benefits to far outweigh the risks. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRIs) and ultrasound technology are examples of diagnostic exams that do not involve exposure to ionizing radiation.

Exposure to ionizing radiation

Radiation exposure may be internal or external, and can be acquired through various exposure pathways.

Internal exposure to ionizing radiation occurs when a radionuclide is inhaled, ingested or otherwise enters into the bloodstream (for example, by injection or through wounds). Internal exposure stops when the radionuclide is eliminated from the body, either spontaneously (such as through excreta) or as a result of a treatment.

External exposure may occur when airborne radioactive material (such as dust, liquid, or aerosols) is deposited on skin or clothes. This type of radioactive material can often be removed from the body by simply washing.

Exposure to ionizing radiation can also result from irradiation from an external source, such as medical radiation exposure from X-rays. External irradiation stops when the radiation source is shielded or when the person moves outside the radiation field.

People can be exposed to ionizing radiation under different circumstances, at home or in public places (public exposures), at their workplaces (occupational exposures), or in a medical setting (as are patients, caregivers, and volunteers).

Exposure to ionizing radiation can be classified into 3 exposure situations. The first, planned exposure situations, result from the deliberate introduction and operation of radiation sources with specific purposes, as is the case with the medical use of radiation for diagnosis or treatment of patients, or the use of radiation in industry or research. The second type of situation, existing exposures, is where exposure to radiation already exists, and a decision on control must be taken – for example, exposure to radon in homes or workplaces or exposure to natural background radiation from the environment. The last type, emergency exposure situations, result from unexpected events requiring prompt response such as nuclear accidents or malicious acts.

Medical use of radiation accounts for 98 % of the population dose contribution from all artificial sources, and represents 20% of the total population exposure. Annually worldwide, more than 3600 million diagnostic radiology examinations are performed, 37 million nuclear medicine procedures are carried out, and 7.5 million radiotherapy treatments are given.

Health effects of ionizing radiation

Radiation damage to tissue and/or organs depends on the dose of radiation received, or the absorbed dose which is expressed in a unit called the gray (Gy). The potential damage from an absorbed dose depends on the type of radiation and the sensitivity of different tissues and organs.

The effective dose is used to measure ionizing radiation in terms of the potential for causing harm. The sievert (Sv) is the unit of effective dose that takes into account the type of radiation and sensitivity of tissues and organs. It is a way to measure ionizing radiation in terms of the potential for causing harm. The Sv takes into account the type of radiation and sensitivity of tissues and organs.

The Sv is a very large unit so it is more practical to use smaller units such as millisieverts (mSv) or microsieverts (μSv). There are one thousand μSv in one mSv, and one thousand mSv in one Sv. In addition to the amount of radiation (dose), it is often useful to express the rate at which this dose is delivered (dose rate), such as microsieverts per hour (μSv/hour) or millisievert per year (mSv/year).

Beyond certain thresholds, radiation can impair the functioning of tissues and/or organs and can produce acute effects such as skin redness, hair loss, radiation burns, or acute radiation syndrome. These effects are more severe at higher doses and higher dose rates. For instance, the dose threshold for acute radiation syndrome is about 1 Sv (1000 mSv).

If the radiation dose is low and/or it is delivered over a long period of time (low dose rate), the risk is substantially lower because there is a greater likelihood of repairing the damage. There is still a risk of long-term effects such as cancer, however, that may appear years or even decades later. Effects of this type will not always occur, but their likelihood is proportional to the radiation dose. This risk is higher for children and adolescents, as they are significantly more sensitive to radiation exposure than adults.

Epidemiological studies on populations exposed to radiation, such as atomic bomb survivors or radiotherapy patients, showed a significant increase of cancer risk at doses above 100 mSv. More recently, some epidemiological studies in individuals exposed to medical exposures during childhood (paediatric CT) suggested that cancer risk may increase even at lower doses (between 50-100 mSv).

Prenatal exposure to ionizing radiation may induce brain damage in foetuses following an acute dose exceeding 100 mSv between weeks 8-15 of pregnancy and 200 mSv between weeks 16-25 of pregnancy. Before week 8 or after week 25 of pregnancy human studies have not shown radiation risk to fetal brain development. Epidemiological studies indicate that the cancer risk after fetal exposure to radiation is similar to the risk after exposure in early childhood

Source: world health organisation


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