Radiation workers help heal us
Celebrate National Radiologic Technology week by learning about radiation
Today begins National Radiologic Technology Week. Across Washington, thousands of medical professionals use radiation to diagnose, cure, or guide care for patients.
Radiation is damaging to biological tissue. In untrained hands, it can be dangerous. But in small, controlled doses administered by trained professionals, it is extremely helpful. At the Department of Health, we ensure health care providers keep you and other patients safe during procedures with radiation. But did you know the many other ways radiation enters our lives?
Most people are familiar with going to the dentist or doctor and getting an X-ray. X-rays pass through our bodies and create a picture of what’s going on inside. There are many uses for X-rays. Some X-rays show our bones and teeth. Mammography is used to find breast cancer in tissue. Computed tomography (also known as CT or CAT) scans take many x-rays in different views to create a three-dimensional image of a patient’s tissues.
Fluoroscopy shows movement inside the body as it happens and is often used in surgical procedures.
Radiation plays a huge part in keeping people safe at home. Did you know smoke detectors contain a radioactive element? A shielded americium source produces a stream of charged particles in the detector. When this beam of particles is broken by smoke, the detector alarms. Be sure to change those batteries and keep your family safe with smoke detectors.
Microwave ovens are another source of radiation in the home. They use non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation to cause water molecules in food to vibrate. This vibration generates heat, warming your food. Automatic shutoffs and shielding help keep us safe, but you still should not stand in front of them and wait for the timer to go off.
Some glasses, dishes, clocks, and other household items sold decades ago used radioactive material in their coloring. Uranium, thorium, and potassium were used in glazes for dishes until the 1970s. Radium made clock faces glow in the dark. Airplanes in World War II used radium on dials to avoid using cockpit lights. Some glasses and dishes glow bright green under a black light because of added uranium.
Did you know cigarettes contain radioactivity? Small hairs called “trichomes” on tobacco leaves bind to radon, a naturally occurring radioactive element abundant on Earth. When tobacco is burned and the smoke inhaled, this extra radon gas is inhaled as well, depositing itself in lung tissue.
Most of the radiation we get is from the natural environment. High energy events in space (like supernovas) create ionizing radiation which spreads to Earth. We call these “cosmic rays.” Don’t worry though! Earth’s atmosphere is excellent at filtering out these particles. But the higher in elevation one goes, like on a commercial flight, the less atmosphere to filter out these cosmic rays. A roundtrip flight from Seattle to Orlando can expose a person to as much radiation as receiving a chest x-ray.
Nuclear weapons testing in Earth’s atmosphere, now banned by international treaty, produced radioactive elements that are still circulating throughout the atmosphere. Precipitation of any form can bring them down to Earth. But their concentrations are too low to cause health effects. These days, we know much more about the dangers of excessive radiation. The work we do helps keep all of Washington safer.
Washington has a unique history with radiation because of our role in producing tons of plutonium for U.S. atomic weapons at Hanford. The U.S. Department of Energy is responsible for the cleanup of Hanford. We monitor the environment for any radioactivity that could create a risk for communities.
We are constantly monitoring airborne radiation levels across the state.
Also, radon is a radioactive gas that occurs when uranium (which is naturally abundant in the Earth) decays. Radon is a hazard if inhaled. It is a danger if it collects in enclosed spaces in the home, and can make drinking water wells unsafe. Learn more about radon on our website.
Some public and private school chemistry, physics, and earth science class lessons use radioactive material. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the classes likely use “a very small amount of a low energy source, like a small piece of rock that contains low energy, naturally-occurring uranium.” Lessons likely focus on shielding or protection.
Some emergency exit signs use the radioactive element tritium. When mixed with other chemicals, tritium glows, marking emergency exits in the event of a power outage. These signs have special handling and disposal requirements, which building owners are responsible to follow.
Radiation is safely used all around us every day. But we continue to work to keep Washingtonians safe from overexposure and to undo past harms inflicted on the environment. To learn more about radiation safety, check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s RadTown, where much of the information for this article came from. Also, you can learn online about the work being done at our Office of Radiation Protection.
Questions about COVID-19? Visit our COVID-19 website to learn more about vaccines and booster doses, testing, WA Notify, and more. You can also contact the Department of Health call center at 1–800–525–0127 and press # from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday, and 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday — Sunday and observed state holidays. Language assistance is available.