Is background Radiation Safe?

If you did not already know background radiation is everywhere! But do we need to worry about it? Background radiation is the radiation that is naturally around you and it’s been there for many millennia. This may be an eye opener to many people, that we are constantly bathed in radiation. But no need to worry, we evolved in this background radiation and the body has been adapted to cope with it.

Ok, so when I am referring to radiation I am implicitly referring to ionizing radiation. So I am not talking just absorbing some light radiation, or sunbathing as some would refer to it. I am talking about the radiation that has enough energy to ionize atoms and cause damage to DNA. Not only is this background radiation in the form of electromagnetic radiation (x-rays and gamma rays) it also come in particulate form. Mainly alpha particles, electrons, and neutrons.

So there are three categories of background radiation that we can become exposed too. They are Cosmic, terrestrial, and internal radiation. Cosmic radiation is the radiation released from stars, the biggest culprit being our own sun. Terrestrial radiation is the radiation naturally found in soils and rocks. (originally formed in the centers of dying stars billions of years ago so in some ways it is cosmic radiation as well). Internal radiation is the result from naturally occurring radioactive elements that are within use from birth and ingested through our food.

We don’t need to worry about cosmic radiation a great deal because our planet, even after we have treated it so badly is protecting us from it. The earth’s magnetic fields deflect the

cosmic radiation to the poles. This radiation then creates the northern and southern lights when it interacts with the stratosphere. Truly one of the most awe inspiring things I have seen to date- photo on the right. The only time that you will be receiving a significant amount of radiation will be when you go on holiday. When you fly internationally you travel into the stratosphere where the radiation levels are higher than what we normally experience down on the surface. As such every international long haul flight is said to be equivalent to having a CT scan done. It’s not a great deal of exposure and the benefits of flying greatly outweigh the dose received- i mean you’re going on holiday. But if you’re a pilot flying every day you might want to be a bit more concerned. Or an astronaut for that matter, who will be exposed to large number of protons.

Terrestrial radiation occurs from the decay of heavy radioactive atoms. Radioactive atoms are ones that are so heavy that they are unstable and will spontaneously breakup into smaller parts, usually emitting some radiation in the form of gamma, alpha, or beta radiation. Many of their radioactive material found in rocks comes from the breakdown of uranium and thorium.

Alpha particles created by this decay is the one that we need

Decay of Uranium through all its daughter products to the stable element Lead

to worry about. An alpha particle is a helium atom with its electrons stripped away. They are one of the major background radiation source for the general public. Normally this occurs from radon gas seeping out of rocks and inside houses. The radon gas then breaks down and the alpha particle is then released and can be breathed in. This can cause lung cancer if exposed to large amounts. Radon gas is mainly of a concern in areas around the world where there is a large percent of uranium in the earth’s crust such as parts of Germany and Australia.

Internal radiation is an interesting one. It basically means that everyone around you is radioactive, to some degree. There are many different elements in your body that are radioactive that you either have been born with or ingest from you diet. Carbon-14, Potassium 40 are some of the major ones. Have you eaten a banana lately? Any vegetables? Bananas and some vegetable are rich in Potassium-40. And Carbon-14 is in all plants and living things. This is how scientists carbon date organic material. There isn’t a great deal of radioactive material inside humans and animals but enough for scientists to measure it using sensitive instruments.

So now you know that there is radiation everywhere, in the ground, in the sky, and in everyone around you. But don’t worry, we have been enduring this radiation as long as we have been living on this earth, and so far we have been doing OK. So there is no reason to stop enjoying all that radioactive wine (all wines will contain some radioactive parts.) and food, sleeping comfortably next to your radioactive partner, or taking long haul flights to go on vacations. This will also hopefully show you that radiation therapy is just the utilization of something that is commonly found in nature.

By Jim from Radical Radiation Remedy ​|​

Jim is a Medical Physicist working in a radiotherapy centre who blogs at Radical Radiation Remedy. They ​blogs​ ​about​ radiation and radiotherapy ​over​ ​at​ ​​

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