Atomic bombs and nuclear reactors all emit ionizing radiation which affects living cells by damaging their genetic material (DNA). Fortunately, our body cells are effective in repairing such damage. However, if the body isn’t sufficient enough to guard itself against this radiation then the cells may die or cause them to mutate in ways that eventually lead to cancer. Exposure to nuclear radiation can also result in skin burns, acute radiation syndrome, and long term cardiovascular disease.
What is Nuclear Radiation?
This is a form of radiation energy emitted by radioactive decay which can appear as high-speed particles. There are several types of radiations; beta, alpha, gamma, and x-ray. The beta exhibit itself in the form of electrons, alpha is made of two protons and two neutrons while gamma and x-ray appear as waves.
Regardless of the form they take, all nuclear radiations are powerful enough to strip electrons off atoms that comes into contact with them thus the name ionizing radiation. When this radiation interacts with our body cells, it breaks the chemical bonds including water molecules in our bodies forming free radicals which can go and attack other molecules.
Cells that are more susceptible to radiation damage are those that are actively reproducing such as blood cells. Blood cells are always dividing cells in the bone marrow making them more prone to radiation damage.
Long term exposure to nuclear radiation has the following effects on different parts of the body:
- Thyroid: As a result of radiation malfunctions, radioactive iodine is released to the atmosphere. Thyroid happens to be the most sensitive part to this radiation. The radioactive iodine is absorbed by the thyroid leading to thyroid cancer. Since radioactive iodine has a high affinity for the thyroid, specialists are taking this advantage and attracting this radiation for therapeutically uses and to treat thyroid cancer.
- Brain: Overexposure to nuclear radiation causes nerve cells and brain blood vessels to die leading to seizures.
- Heart: Radiation exposure can damage cells in the blood vessels that feed the heart reducing cardiac function.
- Lungs: When radioactive particles are released in the air, breathing them can lead to lung cancer with time.
- Lymphatic system: Lymphatic cells are always dividing within the body. Exposure to radiation can cause their death thus damaging bone marrow which increases the risk of infection.
Other Major Effects of Nuclear Radiation
Sieverts measures the radiation exposure risk which accounts for the type and amount of radiation. Also, it tells which part of the body was exposed giving us a chance to compare different kinds of exposure in one scale. Now, below are the major long term effects of exposure to nuclear radiations.
Acute Radiation Syndrome
This is an immediate effect of exposure to nuclear radiation and can cause symptoms such as nausea and vomiting and sometimes death over the following days or weeks. This condition is commonly called radiation sickness. It takes more than 75 rad (0.75 grays) to cause acute radiation syndrome which is very high radiation exposure.
Imagine getting radiation from 18,000 chest x-rays distributed over your entire body in a short period of time. This is how much radiation is required to cause acute radiation syndrome no wonder it can easily lead to death. Cases of acute radiation syndrome are rare and come from extreme events such as nuclear explosions or accidental rupture of a highly radioactive source.
As mentioned above there are various types of cancers that can result from radiation exposure. Don’t assume low levels of radiation can’t cause any harm. In fact, it increases the risk of cancer although its effects are not immediate. Studies that have been keeping track of a large number of people who were exposed to radiation including atomic bomb survivors and radiation industry workers say that due to radiation exposure, these groups of people have a higher chance of getting cancer. As a matter of fact, these researchers say that the risk increases as doses of radiation increase. The higher the dose the greater the chance of developing cancer.
Consequently, as the doses of radiation decrease so does the chances of getting cancer. The radiation safety experts reported that radiation exposure of five to ten rem (5,000-10,000 millirem or 50-100 millisieverts) has no harmful effects. The EPA’s Radiation Protection Program aims at protecting human health and the environment against unnecessary exposure to nuclear radiation.
Exposure to radiation can happen at your workplace, industrial accident, radiation therapy or deliberate poisoning. It’s estimated that most people are exposed to an average of 0.62 rads of radiation each year. Half of this is brought by radon in the air, from the earth, and from cosmic rays. The other half is as a result of medical, commercial and industrial sources. This isn’t something you should be worried about, because when spread over a year it’s not significant in terms of health. In case you’re wondering if x-rays can cause any harm, then you shouldn’t be because levels of radiation from x-rays are not high, although they can occur at one moment.
- A check-up x-ray is equal to 10 days’ radiation exposure.
- A mammogram emits radiation that’s equal to seven days of normal exposure to radiation.
- PET or CT used as part of nuclear medicinal therapy gives an equivalent of eight years of exposure to radiation.
- A CT scan of the pelvis or abdomen is equal to three years of normal radiation exposure.
This is a clear indicator that unless you accidentally get exposed to radiation, you’re safe. Radiation can be helpful in the world of science although it can cause adverse effects on human bodies.
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