You probably already know that x-rays are used in the medical industry to lend doctors and other healthcare professionals more data about their patients.
What you may not know is that x-rays, for all of their merits, are a form of ionizing, electromagnetic radiation that can damage human tissue – e.g., you or me – if the proper precautions aren’t taken.
Understanding X-rays and Ionizing Radiation
X-rays get their namesake from the German physicist Roentgen who dubbed x-rays such around the turn of the 20th century. The reason Roentgen named x-rays “x-rays” is that, at the time, this form of radiation was very dimly understand and basically an unknown. Some holdouts, in fact, still call x-rays Roentgen waves.
- Modern Uses
Actually a form of ionizing radiation that we need to be careful around, x-rays are a type of electromagnetic radiation with a shorter wavelength than visible light’s. The property that makes x-rays such a boon for medical professionals is that most matter – including the flesh and bone that we’re made of – are transparent in relation to x-rays. This is why x-rays are used so widely in public and private industry.
Whether you’ve recently walked through an airport and gotten screened by the TSA with an x-ray scanner or gone to the dentist to have your teeth scrutinized, there’s a good chance that you’ve been exposed along the way to x-rays. If you’ve suffered an injury, then you also may have been given an x-ray in the form of a medical radiography.
Stochastic Health Risk and X-ray Shielding
For all of the good that they can do for people, x-rays need to be approached with caution because exposure to x-rays is cumulative over time. This means that the effects of radiation can build up in the body and predispose you to short-term burns or cancers like leukemia over the long haul.
Although radiologists and other scientists know that x-rays are dangerous, the risk is considered “stochastic” because the exact health risk and negative effects from ionizing radiation are variable based on unpredictable factors. Long story short: reducing your effect dose of ionizing radiation is always a good thing.
- X-ray shielding
One way in which this is accomplished is through lead shielding. Lead offers radiation protection against ionizing x-rays and lowers a person’s effect dose over his or her lifetime – thus making everyone safer.
Lead, although itself toxic, works so effectively because it’s so dense on a molecular level. That’s why lead shielding is used ubiquitously when dealing with x-rays – whether in exam rooms, the dentist’s office or nuclear reactors.
X-rays are definitely a net societal good, and the overall ability of x-rays to lend physicians and security experts a greater view of what’s going on is a byproduct of two factors – the actual size of the x-ray’s wavelength as well as the thickness of the penetrated object. For other types of radiation, non-lead shielding like tungsten based products may be appropriate.
- Hard and Soft X-rays
You need to be more careful around hard x-rays, as opposed to soft x-rays. The former, hard x-rays, give a stronger image, but the cost is more exposure to ionizing radiation.
The longer x-rays, that nonetheless are unable to penetrate as deeply, are called soft x-rays. Soft x-rays are the type that you’ve probably been exposed to while leaning back in a dentist’s chair or, if you’ve had an accident, in the emergency room of a hospital.
X-rays have other, less ballyhooed uses, including being used in atomic research and crystallography. In terms of private industry, x-rays are often used to inspect canned goods and check for
contaminants. In this sense x-rays are definitely to the public good.
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