How Dangerous is Radiation
Radiation is all around us. In, around, and above the world we live in. It is a natural energy force that surrounds us. It is a part of our natural world that has been here since the birth of our planet. All living creatures, from the beginning of time, have been, and are still being, exposed to ionizing radiation.
For example, potassium-40 is one of isotopes which contributes to internal exposure of human. Traces of potassium-40 are found in all potassium, and it is the most common radioisotope in the human body. Higher amounts can be also found in bananas. Does it mean, eating bananas must be dangerous? Of course not.
Whether the source of radiation is natural or man-made, whether it is a large dose of radiation or a small dose, there will be some biological effects. In general, ionizing radiation is harmful and potentially lethal to living beings but can have health benefits in medicine, for example, in radiation therapy for the treatment of cancer and thyrotoxicosis.
In the following thoughts, we try to summarize facts and hypothesis, which can help you understand the problem. It is all about the risks arising from exposure to ionizing radiation and about the consistency in all risks of everyday life. But first we have to summarize key facts about ionizing radiation.
Intensity of Radiation – Dose and Dose Rate
Intensity of ionizing radiation is a key factor, which determines health effects from being exposed to any radiation. It is similar as being exposed to heat radiation from a fire (in fact, it is also transferred by photons). If you are too close to a fire, the intensity of thermal radiation is high and you can get burned. If you are at the right distance, you can withstand there without any problems and moreover it is comfortable. If you are too far from heat source, the insufficiency of heat can also hurt you. This analogy, in a certain sense, can be applied to radiation also from ionizing radiation sources.
In short, to get burned (deterministic effects and demonstrable stochastic effects) by ionizing radiation, you must be exposed to really high amount of radiation. But almost everytime, we are talking about so called low doses. As was written, today the protection system is based on the LNT-hypothesis, which is a conservative model used in radiation protection to estimate the health effects from small radiation doses. This model is excellent for setting up a protection system for all use of ionizing radiation. This model assumes, that there is no threshold point and risk increases linearly with a dose, i.e. the LNT model implies that there is no safe dose of ionizing radiation. If this linear model is correct, then natural background radiation is the most hazardous source of radiation to general public health, followed by medical imaging as a close second. It must be added, the research during the last two decades is very interesting and show that small doses of radiation given at a low dose rate stimulate the defense mechanisms. Therefore the LNT model is not universally accepted with some proposing an adaptive dose–response relationship where low doses are protective and high doses are detrimental. Many studies have contradicted the LNT model and many of these have shown adaptive response to low dose radiation resulting in reduced mutations and cancers. On the other hand, it is very important, to what type of radiation is a person exposed.
Type of Radiation – High-LET x Low-LET
This section is about the fact, that there are several types of ionizing radiation and each type of radiation interacts with matter in a different way. When discussing the intensity of radiation, we have to take into account to which type of radiation are you exposed. For example, alpha radiation tend to travel only a short distance and do not penetrate very far into tissue if at all. Therefore, alpha radiation is sometimes treated as non-hazardous, since it cannot penetrate surface layers of human skin. This is naturally true, but this is not valid for internal exposure by alpha radionuclides. When inhaled or ingested, alpha radiation is much more dangerous than other types of radiation. Note that, the radiation weighting factor for alpha radiation is equal to 20. It was discovered, biological effects of any radiation increases with the linear energy transfer (LET). In short, the biological damage from high-LET radiation (alpha particles, protons or neutrons) is much greater than that from low-LET radiation (gamma rays).
Ionizing radiation is categorized by the nature of the particles or electromagnetic waves that create the ionizing effect. These particles/waves have different ionization mechanisms, and may be grouped as:
- Directly ionizing. Charged particles (atomic nuclei, electrons, positrons, protons, muons, etc.) can ionize atoms directly by fundamental interaction through the Coulomb force if it carries sufficient kinetic energy. These particles must be moving at relativistic speeds to reach the required kinetic energy. Even photons (gamma rays and X-rays) can ionize atoms directly (despite they are electrically neutral) through the Photoelectric effect and the Compton effect, but secondary (indirect) ionization is much more significant.
- Indirectly ionizing. Indirect ionizing radiation is electrically neutral particles and therefore does not interact strongly with matter. The bulk of the ionization effects are due to secondary ionizations.
External x Internal Exposure
As was written, it is crucial, whether we are exposed to radiation from external sources or from internal sources. This is similar as for another dangerous substances. Internal exposure is more dangerous than external exposure, since we are carrying the source of radiation inside our bodies and we cannot use any of radiation protection principles (time, distance, shielding). The intake of radioactive material can occur through various pathways such as ingestion of radioactive contamination in food or liquids, inhalation of radioactive gases, or through intact or wounded skin. On this place, we have to distinguish between radiation and contamination. Radioactive contamination consist of radioactive material, that generate ionizing radiation. It is the source of radiation, not radiation itself. Anytime that radioactive material is not in a sealed radioactive source container and might be spread onto other objects, radioactive contamination is a possibility. For example, radioiodine, iodine-131, is an important radioisotope of iodine. Radioiodine plays a major role as a radioactive isotope present in nuclear fission products, and it is a major contributor to the health hazards when released into the atmosphere during an accident. Iodine-131 has a half-life of 8.02 days. The target tissue for radioiodine exposure is the thyroid gland. The external beta and gamma dose from radioiodine present in the air is quite negligible when compared to the committed dose to the thyroid that would result from breathing this air.
Consistency in all Risks
Finally, it is all about the risks arising from exposure to ionizing radiation and about the consistency in all risks of everyday life. In general, danger (also risk or peril) is the possibility of something bad happening. A situation in which there is a risk of something bad happening, is called dangerous, risky or perilous. Yes, the term ionizing radiation sounds very dangerous, but how exactly dangerous radiation is?
Humans are often inconsistent in our treatment of perceived risks. Even though two situations may have similar risks, people will find one situation permissible and another unjustifiably dangerous. For radiation risks, doses to the public must be kept under 1 mSv/year. Even for very conservative case of linear non-threshold assumption, one millisievert represents a 0.0055% chance of some detrimental health effects. Two points:
- In our opinion, this is an acceptable risk. Note that, annual doses from natural background radiation in on average about 3.7 mSv/year (10 µSv = average daily dose received from natural background).
- Moreover, problem of this model is that it neglects a number of defence biological processes that may be crucial at low doses. The research during the last two decades is very interesting and shows that small doses of radiation given at a low dose rate stimulate the defense mechanisms.
Annually received dose of 1 mSv causes very conservatively about 0.0055% chance of some detrimental health effects. In April 2012, a year after the Fukushima accident, cleanup efforts are supposed to be happening wherever the radiation dose exceeds government regulations. Entire towns are still off limits because the annual dose from the ground is projected to be greater than 50 mSv or even 20 mSv, leaving many people in the area homeless and jobless. But did anyone take into account health effects of this evacuation. The consequences of low-level radiation are often more psychological than radiological. Forced evacuation from a radiological or nuclear accident may lead to social isolation, anxiety, depression, psychosomatic medical problems, reckless behavior, even suicide. Such was the outcome of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine. A comprehensive 2005 study concluded that “the mental health impact of Chernobyl is the largest public health problem unleashed by the accident to date”. But what if the threshold model is true, and doses of up to 100 mSv/yr actually result in no detectable health risks? This would mean that people are being unnecessarily kept away and prevented from working on their farms for negligible health effects. Recall that the annual dose in some parts of Araxa, Brazil is higher than 20 mSv while the average dose examined in the three-country nuclear worker studies was 30-40 mSv/yr, and that these studies found no significant increase in solid cancers or leukemias from those doses.
Another point of view can be obtained when we will consider all risks of everyday life. What about risks, which arise from transportation. Nearly 1.25 million people die in road crashes each year, on average 3,287 deaths a day. Road crashes are the leading cause of death among young people ages 15-29, and the second leading cause of death worldwide among young people ages 5-14. On a road, people don’t realize the kinetic energy of a car. So why we do not stop driving cars? Yes, transportation is today essential, but so are the peaceful uses of radiation. And what about smoking cigarettes? Cigarettes contain also polonium-210, originating from the decay products of radon, which stick to tobacco leaves. Polonium-210 emits a 5.3 MeV alpha particle, which provides most of equivalent dose. Heavy smoking results in a dose of 160 mSv/year to localized spots at the bifurcations of segmental bronchi in the lungs from the decay of polonium-210. This dose is not readily comparable to the radiation protection limits, since the latter deal with whole body doses, while the dose from smoking is delivered to a very small portion of the body.
Finally, we would like to discuss a very interesting fact. It is generally known, the increasing use of nuclear power and electricity generation using nuclear reactors will lead to a small but increasing radiation dose to the general public. But it is not generally known, power generation from coal also creates additional exposures, and, what is more interesting, while exposure levels are very low, the coal cycle contributes more than half of the total radiation dose to the global population from electricity generation. The nuclear fuel cycle contributes less than one-fifth of this. The collective dose, which are defined as the sum of all individual effective doses in a group of people over the time period or during the operation being considered due to ionizing radiation, is:
- 670-1400 man Sv for coal cycle, depending on the age of the power plant,
- 130 man Sv for nuclear fuel cycle,
- 5-160 man Sv for geothermal power,
- 55 man Sv for natural gas
- 03 man Sv for oil
Yes, these results should be seen from the perspective of the share of each technology in worldwide electricity production. Since 40 per cent of the world’s energy was produced by the coal cycle in 2010, and 13 per cent by nuclear, the normalized collective dose will be about the same:
- 7 – 1.4 man Sv/GW.a (man sievert per gigawatt year) for coal cycle
- 43 man Sv/GW.a (man sievert per gigawatt year) for nuclear fuel cycle
Special Reference: Sources and effects of ionizing radiation, UNSCEAR 2016 – Annex B. New York, 2017. ISBN: 978-92-1-142316-7.