Sources of Radiation

The sources of radiation can be either natural or man-made.

Natural background radiation

Cosmic radiation The Earth, and all living things on it, are constantly bombarded by radiation from space. Charged particles from the sun and stars interact with the Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field to produce a shower of radiation, mostly beta and gamma radiation. The amount of cosmic radiation varies in different parts of the world because of differences in elevation and also the effects of the Earth’s magnetic field.


Terrestrial Radiation Radioactive material is found throughout nature. It occurs naturally in the soil, water, and vegetation. The major isotopes that are of concern are uranium and the decay products of uranium, such as thorium, radium, and radon. Low levels of uranium, thorium, and their decay products are found everywhere. Some of these materials are ingested (taken in) with food and water, while others are breathed in. The dose of radiation from terrestrial sources varies in different parts of the world.


Man-made sources of radiation

Although all living things are exposed to natural background radiation, there are other sources of radiation. Some of these will affect most members of the public, while others will only affect those people who are exposed to radiation through their work.

Members of the Public Man-made radiation sources that affect members of the public include televisions, tobacco (polonium-210), combustible fuels, smoke detectors (americium), luminous watches (tritium) and building materials. By far, the most significant source of man-made radiation exposure to the public is from medical procedures, such as diagnostic x-rays, nuclear medicine, and radiation therapy. Some of the major isotopes involved are I-131, Tc-99m, Co-60, Ir-192, and Cs-137. The production of nuclear fuel using uranium is also a source of radiation for the public, as is fallout from nuclear weapons testing or use.


Individuals who are exposed through their work Any people who work in the following environments are exposed to radiation at some time: radiology (X-ray) departments, nuclear power plants, nuclear medicine departments and radiation oncology (the study of cancer) departments. Some of the isotopes that are of concern are cobalt-60, cesium-137, americium-241, and others.

Effects of Radiation

Natural radiation comes from a variety of sources such as the rocks, sun and from space. However, when we are exposed to large amounts of radiation, this can cause damage to cells. γ radiation is particularly dangerous because it is able to penetrate the body, unlike α and β particles whose penetration power is less. Some of the dangers of radiation are listed below:

Damage to cells Radiation is able to penetrate the body, and also to penetrate the membranes of the cells within our bodies, causing massive damage. Radiation poisoning occurs when a person is exposed to large amounts of this type of radiation. Radiation poisoning damages tissues within the body, causing symptoms such as diarrhoea, vomiting, loss of hair and convulsions.


Genetic abnormalities When radiation penetrates cell membranes, it can damage chromosomes within the nucleus of the cell. The chromosomes contain all the genetic information for that person. If the chromosomes are changed, this may lead to genetic abnormalities in any children that are born to the person who has been exposed to radiation. Long after the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl in Russia in 1986, babies were born with defects such as missing limbs and abnormal growths.


Cancer Small amounts of radiation can cause cancers such as leukemia (cancer of the blood)



Uses of Radiation

However, despite the many dangers of radiation, it does have many powerful uses, some of which are listed below:

Medical Field Radioactive chemical tracers emitting γ rays can give information about a person’s internal anatomy and the functioning of specific organs. The radioactive material may be injected into the patient, from where it will target specific areas such as bones or tumours. As the material decays and releases radiation, this can be seen using a special type of camera or other instrument. The radioactive material that is used for this purpose must have a short half-life so that the radiation can be detected quickly and also so that the material is quickly removed from the patient’s body. Using radioactive materials for this purpose can mean that a tumour or cancer may be diagnosed long before these would have been detected using other methods such as X-rays. Radiation may also be used to sterilise medical equipment.


Biochemistry and Genetics Radioisotopes may be used as tracers to label molecules so that chemical processes such as DNA replication or amino acid transport can be traced.


Food preservation Irradiation of food can stop vegetables or plants from sprouting after they have been harvested. It also kills bacteria and parasites, and controls the ripening of fruits.


Environment Radioisotopes can be used to trace and analyse pollutants.


Archaeology and Carbon dating Natural radioisotopes such as C-14 can be used to determine the age of organic remains. All living organisms (e.g. trees, humans) contain carbon. Carbon is taken in by plants and trees through the process of photosynthesis in the form of carbon dioxide and is then converted into organic molecules.

When animals feed on plants, they also obtain carbon through these organic compounds. Some of the carbon in carbon dioxide is the radioactive C-14, while the rest is a non-radioactive form of carbon. When an organism dies, no more carbon is taken in and there is a limited amount of C-14 in the body. From this point onwards, C-14 begins its radioactive decay. When scientists uncover remains, they are able to estimate the age of the remains by seeing how much C-14 is left in the body relative to the amount of non-radioactive carbon. The less C-14 there is, the older the remains because radioactive decay must have been taking place for a long time. Because scientists know the exact rate of decay of C-14, they can calculate a very accurate estimate of the age of the remains. Carbon dating has been a very important tool in building up accurate historical records.


Recommended: Half-life: Concepts and Calculations

                        Radioactive Decay and Radiations

                        Nuclear structure and stability



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