Most people connect the term radiation only with ionizing radiation, but it is not correct. 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. We should distinguish between:
- Non-ionizing radiation. The kinetic energy of particles (photons, electrons, etc.) of non-ionizing radiation is too small to produce charged ions when passing through matter. The particles (photons) have only sufficient energy to change the rotational, vibrational or electronic valence configurations of target molecules and atoms. Sunlight, radio waves, and cell phone signals are examples of non-ionizing (photon) radiation. However, it can still cause harm, like when you get a sunburn.
- Ionizing radiation. The kinetic energy of particles (photons, electrons, etc.) of ionizing radiation is sufficient and the particle can ionize (to form ion by losing electrons) target atoms to form ions. Simply ionizing radiation can knock electrons from an atom.
The boundary is not sharply defined, since different molecules and atoms ionize at different energies. This is typical for electromagnetic waves. Among electromagnetic waves belong, in order of increasing frequency (energy) and decreasing wavelength: radio waves, microwaves, infrared radiation, visible light, ultraviolet radiation, X-rays and gamma rays. Gamma rays, X-rays, and the higher ultraviolet part of the spectrum are ionizing, whereas the lower ultraviolet, visible light (including laser light), infrared, microwaves, and radio waves are considered non-ionizing radiation.
Non-ionizing radiation refers to a less energetic radiation, but it does not mean it cannot be harmful. One form of non-ionizing radiation is ultraviolet, or UV, radiation, which you may be familiar with – we use sunscreen on Earth to shield ourselves from harmful UV rays. It must be noted, UV is also responsible for the formation of bone-strengthening vitamin D in most land vertebrates, including humans (specifically, UVB). The UV spectrum thus has effects both beneficial and harmful to human health.
In every case, intensity of non-ionizing radiation also matters. Consider heat from a fire, if you are too close, the intensity of heat 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 radiation sources.