When many people hear the word “radiation,” they immediately think of its harmful effects. With so many warnings about radiation exposure in the news, it’s easy to relate radiation to cancer and environmental damage even though radiation can also be beneficial. For starters, it is important to state what radiation is not in relation to what people know in general about it:
-Radiation on its own is not something that you can smell, taste, hear, see or feel.
-Radiation is all around you. You can’t remove it entirely from your geographic, home or work environments. After all, the sun drenches our planet in radiation every single day.
What is radiation?
Radiation is a form of energy. The term “radiation” can also describe how certain energies are transmitted or emitted. Radiation can exist as waves, rays and subatomic particles. Radiation is produced by atomic reactions and substances that emit it as a byproduct of decay.
Light from our closest star exposes us to one form of that energy — ultraviolet radiation. We are also exposed to radiation in many other ways:
-Space is filled with radiation that doesn’t come from the Sun but still makes its way through Earth’s atmosphere.
-Certain natural materials deep underground also expose us to radiation.
-Mankind uses radioactive materials in a variety of industries for different purposes.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly…
Certain types of radiation, such as ionizing radiation generated by unstable atomic reactions, causes cellular mutations and cellular death. Some of this energy does harm because of how it enters the body. Some simply passes right through the body without causing harm. It is for these reasons that doctors recommend that people wear sunscreen. Your exposure to ultraviolet radiation, even on a cloudy day, can cause cellular damage and skin cancer as you age. Since X-rays are also a type of ionizing radiation, too much exposure to X-ray machines and similar scanners can also cause damage.
Some radioactive materials take a long time to break down. As a result, there are always health and environmental risks with using nuclear power as a “clean” alternative to fossil fuels. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant equipment failure and meltdown caused by a 2011 earthquake and tsunami has repeatedly proven this fact. Scientists are still working to determine the long-term environmental and health effects as radiation and contaminated water continue to leak from the site. The situation has been so severe that the Japanese government waited four years until this month to restart its nuclear power plant reactors. In the Ukraine, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster continues to cause damage almost 30 years later.
Of course, as already briefly mentioned, various types of radiation benefit humans. For example:
-Ultraviolet radiation is used by the body for the production of Vitamin D, which is critical to the health of your mind, bones and nerves.
-Different types of radiation are used to destroy cancer cells.
-Food producers often use different forms of radiation to kill harmful microorganisms on produce.
Neat fact: If you’ve ever eaten Brazil nuts or bananas, you’ve also exposed yourself to low levels of radiation absorbed into the plants through their root systems from radioactive materials located in the ground.
Instead of asking “What is radiation?,” think about “How much can I handle?”
You only need to worry about sudden or cumulative high-level exposures, cumulative low-level exposures and certain types of radiation. Otherwise, the only other time you should worry is when have a health condition or family history that would make you more likely to get sick from certain exposures.
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