What is Radiation and Why is it Dangerous?

Sign of radioactivity

Radiation. The very word may conjure up terrifying thoughts of nuclear meltdown, but the reality is that “radiation” is simply the transference of heat or energy. Radiation may travel in easily blocked particles or in waves, which easily penetrate most things, including the human body. Low levels of radiation are literally everywhere, emanating even from nearby plants and animals. This is known as background radiation and is harmless. Higher levels of radiation, however, have increased odds of causing harm.

The potential harm from radiation is determined by the source and type of radiation, as well as part of the body exposed to the radiation and the duration of exposure. Some types of harmful radiation may cause immediate damage, while others may cause delayed damage.

There are regulations put in place by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to limit and monitor the amount of radiation to which the environment is exposed. Radiation levels absorbed by the body are measured in rems. The following is an extremely basic breakdown of what certain levels of some types of radiation may do to the human body.

  • 0-10 rem – No damage is expected to occur to the body, whether short- or long-term exposure.

  • 10-50 rem – Regardless of short- or long-term exposure, chances of cancer slightly increase and red blood cell production may decrease.

  • 50-100 rem – If this exposure is rapid, observable health effects are expected. Over a longer period of exposure, chances of cancer are increased.

  • 100-200 rem – Short-term exposure is expected to cause nausea and fatigue; long-term exposure increases chances of cancer.

  • 200-300 rem – Short-term exposure is expected to cause nausea and vomiting within 24-48 hours. Patients with the level of exposure should seek immediate medical attention.

  • 300-500 rem – Short-term exposure is expected to cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea within hours. Loss of hair and loss of appetite are expected within a week. Medical attention is vital; roughly half of patients exposed to these levels die without treatment.

  • 500-1,200 rem – Patients exposed to these levels of radiation within a short-period of time are expected to die within a few days.

  • >10,000 rem of short-term radiation exposure is expected to lead to death within a few hours.

The most important step to protecting oneself in an occupation dealing with higher levels of radiation is to be informed. Making oneself knowledgeable about protective equipment, safer amounts of time to remain in a potentially hazardous work area, and signs of prolonged exposure may help a person make wise decisions for his/her personal safety.

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