By: Henry Chang
What do you think of when you hear the word “radiation”? A biologist may consider it as an environmental factor. A physicist may consider it as energy that travels through space. A doctor may consider it as potential treatment for cancer. Radiation represents a range of energy that may or may not be visible and comes in the form of particles or waves. Clearly, radiation can have many meanings.
There are two recognizable categories of radiation: ionizing and nonionizing. To ionize means to break down matter; thus, in essence, ionizing radiation is dangerous and must be handled with extreme caution . In high doses, it is capable of killing a multitude of cells. Ionizing radiation is used in the military as weapons, in medicine as therapeutics, and in power plants as an energy source. On the other hand, nonionizing radiation is relatively safe. In low doses, it is harmlessly used for convenience in microwaves and for entertainment purposes such as radios or television.
Fear of radiation originates from the observable side effects resulting from high dosages of radiation. Such exposure causes radiation sickness, which is associated with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and more. Children are particularly sensitive to radiation, because their immune systems are still developing . How severe each symptom will be depends on the extent and duration of exposure; increased contact with radiation causes more severe conditions. To pregnant women, it may cause infant birth defects. The most serious cases result in cancer.
Before becoming alarmed, think about when exactly you would be exposed to high doses of radiation. For instance, consider times of war or conflict in countries. Radiation exposure from nuclear bombing caused a massive wave of panic during World War II and during the Cold War. In 1986, a major radiation exposure occurred when a nuclear power plant exploded in Chernobyl, Ukraine due to a technical error . In 2011, a tsunami triggered an earthquake that devastated a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan. In everyday life, the chance of incidents such as these transpiring is, realistically, very low. The average person should truthfully worry more about prolonged exposure to sunlight.
Fortunately, resilience to radiation is a concept rooted in nature. In reality, living things are no strangers to radiation. They have adapted to the surrounding radiation over time and have developed repair mechanisms to combat its deleterious effects. For example, during World War II, deployment of nuclear bombs heavily irradiated regions of Hiroshima, Japan. Amongst the desolate aftermath, six gingko trees were able to survive . Those gingko trees then adapted to the radiation levels and accordingly evolved to become somewhat resistant to radiation. Similarly, in the human body, there exists a built-in system that efficiently resolves any minor damage due to radiation exposure. Damaged cells repair or sacrifice themselves and in general many cells are routinely replaced.
To most, radiation is perceived as a significant yet unclear danger. Then again, at one point in time so was fire—think about how man has progressed since then. Radiation today is both calculated and controlled in commercial and professional use. Rather than fearing radiation, be willing to acknowledge its positive potential and understand the specifics.
1. “Radiation Basics.” United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
2. Warry R. 2011. “Q&A: Health effects of radiation exposure.” BBC News.
3. “Health effects of the Chernobyl accident.” World Health Organization.
4. “A-bombed Ginkgo trees in Hiroshima, Japan.” The Gingko Pages.
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