Psychology Wiki

Assessment | Biopsychology | Comparative | Cognitive | Developmental | Language | Individual differences | Personality | Philosophy | Social |
Methods | Statistics | Clinical | Educational | Industrial | Professional items | World psychology |

Biological: Behavioural genetics · Evolutionary psychology · Neuroanatomy · Neurochemistry · Neuroendocrinology · Neuroscience · Psychoneuroimmunology · Physiological Psychology · Psychopharmacology (Index, Outline)

This article needs rewriting to enhance its relevance to psychologists..
Please help to improve this page yourself if you can..

Radiation hazard symbol.

File:New radiation symbol ISO 21482.svg

Ionizing radiation hazard symbol (recently introduced).[1]

Main article: Radiation

Ionizing radiation consists of subatomic particles or electromagnetic waves that are energetic enough to detach electrons from atoms or molecules, ionizing them. The occurrence of ionization depends on the energy of the impinging individual particles or waves, and not on their number. An intense flood of particles or waves will not cause ionization if these particles or waves do not carry enough energy to be ionizing. Roughly speaking, particles or photons with energies above a few electron volts (eV) are ionizing.

Examples of ionizing particles are energetic alpha particles, beta particles, and neutrons. The ability of electromagnetic waves (photons) to ionize an atom or molecule depends on their wavelength. Radiation on the short wavelength end of the electromagnetic spectrum - ultraviolet, x-rays, and gamma rays - is ionizing.

Ionizing radiation comes from radioactive materials, x-ray tubes, particle accelerators, and is present in the environment. It has many practical uses in medicine, research, construction, and other areas, but presents a health hazard if used improperly. Exposure to radiation causes microscopic damage to living tissue, resulting in skin burns and radiation sickness at high doses and cancer, tumors and genetic damage at low doses.

Types of radiation

[[Image:Alfa beta gamma neutron radiation.svg|250px|thumb|Alpha (α) radiation consists of Helium-4 ([[Helium-4|Template:SimpleNuclide]]) nuclei and is stopped by a sheet of paper. Beta (β) radiation, consisting of electrons, is halted by an aluminium plate. Gamma (γ) radiation, consisting of energetic photons, is eventually absorbed as it penetrates a dense material. Neutron (n) radiation consists of free neutrons which are blocked using light elements, like hydrogen, which slow and/or capture them.]]

Various types of ionizing radiation may be produced by radioactive decay, nuclear fission and nuclear fusion, extremely hot objects via blackbody radiation, and by particle accelerators.

In order for a particle to be ionizing, it must have at least 34 eV, which occurs half way through the ultraviolet spectrum. it must both have a high enough energy and interact with the atoms of a target. Photons interact strongly with charged particles, so photons of sufficiently high energy also are ionizing. The energy at which this begins to happen with photons (light) is in the ultraviolet region of the electromagnetic spectrum; sunburn is one of the effects of ionization. Charged particles such as electrons, positrons, and alpha particles also interact strongly with electrons of an atom or molecule. Neutrons, on the other hand, do not interact strongly with electrons, and so they cannot directly cause ionization by this mechanism. However, fast neutrons will interact with the protons in hydrogen (in the manner of a billiard ball hitting another, sending it away with all of the first ball's energy of motion), and this mechanism produces proton radiation (fast protons). These protons are ionizing because of their strong interaction with electrons in matter. A neutron can also interact with an atomic nucleus, depending on the nucleus and the neutron's velocity; these reactions happen with fast neutrons and slow neutrons, depending on the situation. Neutron interactions in this manner often produce radioactive nuclei, which produce ionizing radiation when they decay, they then can produce chain reactions in the mass that is decaying, sometimes causing a larger effect of ionization.

In the picture at left, gamma rays are represented by wavy lines, charged particles and neutrons by straight lines. The little circles show where ionization processes occur.

An ionization event normally produces a positive atomic ion and an electron. High-energy beta particles may produce bremsstrahlung when passing through matter, or secondary electrons (δ-electrons); both can ionize in turn.

Unlike alpha or beta particles (see particle radiation), gamma rays do not ionize all along their path, but rather interact with matter in one of three ways: the photoelectric effect, the Compton effect, and pair production. By way of example, the figure shows Compton effect: two Compton scatterings that happen sequentially. In every scattering event, the gamma ray transfers energy to an electron, and it continues on its path in a different direction and with reduced energy.

In the same figure, the neutron collides with a proton of the target material, and then becomes a fast recoil proton that ionizes in turn. At the end of its path, the neutron is captured by a nucleus in an (n,γ)-reaction that leads to a neutron capture photon.

The negatively-charged electrons and positively charged ions created by ionizing radiation may cause damage in living tissue. If the dose is sufficient, the effect may be seen almost immediately, in the form of radiation poisoning. Lower doses may cause cancer or other long-term problems. The effect of the very low doses encountered in normal circumstances (from both natural and artificial sources, like cosmic rays, medical X-rays and nuclear power plants) is a subject of current debate. A 2005 report released by the National Research Council (the BEIR VII report, summarized in [3]) indicated that the overall cancer risk associated with background sources of radiation was relatively low.

Radioactive materials usually release alpha particles, which are the nuclei of helium, beta particles, which are quickly moving electrons or positrons, or gamma rays. Alpha and beta particles can often be stopped by a piece of paper or a sheet of aluminium, respectively. They cause most damage when they are emitted inside the human body. Gamma rays are less ionizing than either alpha or beta particles, and protection against gammas requires thicker shielding. The damage they produce is similar to that caused by X-rays, and include burns and also cancer, through mutations. Human biology resists germline mutation by either correcting the changes in the DNA or inducing apoptosis in the mutated cell.

Non-ionizing radiation is thought to be essentially harmless below the levels that cause heating. Ionizing radiation is dangerous in direct exposure, although the degree of danger is a subject of debate. Humans and animals can also be exposed to ionizing radiation internally: if radioactive isotopes are present in the environment, they may be taken into the body. For example, radioactive iodine is treated as normal iodine by the body and used by the thyroid; its accumulation there often leads to thyroid cancer. Some radioactive elements also bioaccumulate.


Weighting factors WR for equivalent dose
Radiation Energy wR
x-rays, gamma rays, electrons, positrons, muons   1
neutrons < 10 keV 5
  10 keV - 100 keV 10
  100 keV - 2 MeV 20
  2 MeV - 20 MeV 10
  > 20 MeV 5
protons > 2 MeV 2
alpha particles, fission fragments, heavy nuclei   20

The units used to measure ionizing radiation are rather complex. The ionizing effects of radiation are measured by units of exposure:

  • The coulomb per kilogram (C/kg) is the SI unit of ionizing radiation exposure, and measures the amount of radiation required to create 1 coulomb of charge of each polarity in 1 kilogram of matter.
  • The roentgen (R) is an older traditional unit that is almost out of use, which represented the amount of radiation required to liberate 1 esu of charge of each polarity in 1 cubic centimeter of dry air. 1 Roentgen = 2.58×10−4 C/kg

However, the amount of damage done to matter (especially living tissue) by ionizing radiation is more closely related to the amount of energy deposited rather than the charge. This is called the absorbed dose.

  • The gray (Gy), with units J/kg, is the SI unit of absorbed dose, which represents the amount of radiation required to deposit 1 joule of energy in 1 kilogram of any kind of matter.
  • The rad (Roentgen absorbed dose), is the corresponding traditional unit which is 0.01 J deposited per kg. 100 rad = 1 Gy.

Equal doses of different types or energies of radiation cause different amounts of damage to living tissue. For example, 1 Gy of alpha radiation causes about 20 times as much damage as 1 Gy of x-rays. Therefore the equivalent dose was defined to give an approximate measure of the biological effect of radiation. It is calculated by multiplying the absorbed dose by a weighting factor WR which is different for each type of radiation (see above table).

  • The sievert (Sv) is the SI unit of equivalent dose. Although it has the same units as grays, J/kg, it measures something different. It is the dose of any type of radiation in Gy that has the same biological effect on a human as 1 Gy of x-rays or gamma radiation.
  • The rem (Roentgen equivalent man) is the traditional unit of equivalent dose. 1 sievert = 100 rem. Because the rem is a relatively large unit, typical equivalent dose is measured in millirem (mrem), 10-3 rem, or in microsievert (μSv), 10-6 Sv. 1 mrem = 10 μSv.

For comparison, the 'background' dose of natural radiation received by a US citizen is around 3 mSv (300 mrem) per year. The lethal dose of radiation for a human is around 4 - 5 Sv (400 - 500 rem).


Ionizing radiation has many uses, such as to kill cancerous cells. However, although ionizing radiation has many applications, overuse can be hazardous to human health. For example, at one time, assistants in shoe shops used X-rays to check a child's shoe size, but this practice was halted when it was discovered that ionizing radiation was dangerous.[2]

Technical uses of ionizing radiation

Since ionizing radiations can penetrate matter, they are used for a variety of measuring methods.

Radiography by means of gamma or X rays
This is a method used in industrial production. The piece to be radiographed is placed between the source and a photographic film in a cassette. After a certain exposure time, the film is developed and it shows internal defects of the material if there are any.
Gauges use the exponential absorption law of gamma rays
  • Level indicators: Source and detector are placed at opposite sides of a container, indicating the presence or absence of material in the horizontal radiation path. Beta or gamma sources are used, depending on the thickness and the density of the material to be measured. The method is used for containers of liquids or of grainy substances
  • Thickness gauges: if the material is of constant density, the signal measured by the radiation detector depends on the thickness of the material. This is useful for continuous production, like of paper, rubber, etc.
Applications using ionization of gases by radiation
  • To avoid the build-up of static electricity in production of paper, plastics, synthetic textiles, etc., a ribbon-shaped source of the alpha emitter 241Am can be placed close to the material at the end of the production line. The source ionizes the air to remove electric charges on the material.
  • Smoke detector: Two ionisation chambers are placed next to each other. Both contain a small source of 241Am that gives rise to a small constant current. One is closed and serves for comparison, the other is open to ambient air; it has a gridded electrode. When smoke enters the open chamber, the current is disrupted as the smoke particles attach to the charged ions and restore them to a neutral electrical state. This reduces the current in the open chamber. When the current drops below a certain threshold, the alarm is triggered.
  • Radioactive tracers for industry: Since radioactive isotopes behave, chemically, mostly like the inactive element, the behavior of a certain chemical substance can be followed by tracing the radioactivity. Examples:
    • Adding a gamma tracer to a gas or liquid in a closed system makes it possible to find a hole in a tube.
    • Adding a tracer to the surface of the component of a motor makes it possible to measure wear by measuring the activity of the lubricating oil.
Potential electricity generation through nanomaterials
Using layers of carbon nanotubes interlaced with gold and lithium hydride, has been shown to produce a current when the gold particles are hit by radiation, releasing electrons which can travel through the carbon nanotubes to the lithium hydride, and then to electrodes in order to generate electricity.[3]

Biological and medical applications of ionizing radiation

In biology, radiation is mainly used for sterilization, and enhancing mutations. For example, mutations may be induced by radiation to produce new or improved species. A very promising field is the sterile insect technique, where male insects are sterilized and liberated in the chosen field, so that they have no descendants, and the population is reduced.

Radiation is also useful in sterilizing medical hardware or food. The advantage for medical hardware is that the object may be sealed in plastic before sterilization. For food, there are strict regulations to prevent the occurrence of induced radioactivity. The growth of a seedling may be enhanced by radiation, but excessive radiation will hinder growth.

Electrons, x rays, gamma rays or atomic ions may be used in radiation therapy to treat malignant tumors (cancer). Furthermore, just like in industrial application, x rays can also be used in radiography to create images of hard-to-image objects, such as inside one's body.

Tracer methods are used in nuclear medicine in a way analogous to the technical uses mentioned above.


Natural background radiation

Natural background radiation comes from four primary sources: cosmic radiation, solar radiation, external terrestrial sources, and radon.

Cosmic radiation

For more details on this topic, see Cosmic ray.

The Earth, and all living things on it, are constantly bombarded by radiation from outside our solar system. This cosmic radiation consists of positively-charged ions from protons to iron nuclei. The energy of this radiation can far exceed that which humans can create even in the largest particle accelerators (see ultra-high-energy cosmic ray). This radiation interacts in the atmosphere to create secondary radiation that rains down, including x-rays, muons, protons, alpha particles, pions, electrons, and neutrons.

The dose from cosmic radiation is largely from muons, neutrons, and electrons, with a dose rate that varies in different parts of the world and based largely on the geomagnetic field, altitude, and solar cycle. The cosmic-radiation dose rate on airplanes is so high that, according to the United Nations UNSCEAR 2000 Report (see links at bottom), airline flight crew workers receive more dose on average than any other worker, including those in nuclear power plants.

Solar radiation

While most of the Sun's output consists of light (solar radiation), particle radiation is also produced and varies with the solar cycle. These particles are mostly protons with relatively low energies (10-100 keV). Their average composition is similar to that of the Sun itself. This represents significantly lower energy particles than come from cosmic rays. Solar particles vary widely in their intensity and spectrum, increasing in strength after some solar events such as solar flares. Further, an increase in the intensity of solar cosmic rays is often followed by a decrease in the galactic cosmic rays, called a Forbush decrease after their discoverer, the physicist Scott Forbush. These decreases are due to the solar wind which carries the Sun's magnetic field out further to shield the earth more thoroughly from cosmic radiation.

The ionizing component of solar radiation is negligible relative to other forms of radiation on Earth's surface.

External terrestrial sources

Most materials on Earth contain some radioactive atoms, even if in small quantities. Most of the terrestrial non-radon-dose one receives from these sources is from gamma-ray emitters in the walls and floors when inside a house, or rocks and soil when outside. The major radionuclides of concern for terrestrial radiation are potassium, uranium, and thorium. Each of these sources has been decreasing in activity since the birth of the Earth so that our present dose from potassium-40 is about ½ what it would have been at the dawn of life on Earth.


Radon-222 is produced by the decay of radium-226 which is present wherever uranium is found. Since radon is a gas, it seeps out of uranium-containing soils found across most of the world and may accumulate in well-sealed homes. It is often the single largest contributor to an individual's background radiation dose and is certainly the most variable from location to location. Radon gas could be the second largest cause of lung cancer in America, after smoking.[4]

Human-made radiation sources

Natural and artificial radiation sources are similar in their effects on matter. Above the background level of radiation exposure, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requires that its licensees limit human-made radiation exposure for individual members of the public to 100 mrem (1 mSv) per year, and limit occupational radiation exposure to adults working with radioactive material to 5,000 mrem (50 mSv) per year.

The average exposure for Americans is about 360 mrem (3.6 mSv) per year, 81 percent of which comes from natural sources of radiation. The remaining 19 percent results from exposure to human-made radiation sources such as medical X-rays, most of which is deposited in people who have CAT scans. This compares with the average dose received by people in the UK of about 2.2 mSv. As already mentioned, an important source of natural radiation is radon gas, which seeps continuously from bedrock but can, because of its high density, accumulate in poorly ventilated houses.

The background rate for radiation varies considerably with location, being as low as 1.5 mSv/a (1.5 mSv per year) in some areas and over 100 mSv/a in others. People in some parts of Ramsar, a city in northern Iran, receive an annual absorbed dose from background radiation that is up to 260 mSv/a. Despite having lived for many generations in these high background areas, inhabitants of Ramsar show no significant cytogenetic differences compared to people in normal background areas.[How to reference and link to summary or text] This has led to the suggestion that high but steady levels of radiation are easier for humans to sustain than sudden radiation bursts.

Some human-made radiation sources affect the body through direct radiation, while others take the form of radioactive contamination and irradiate the body from within.

Medical procedures, such as diagnostic X-rays, nuclear medicine, and radiation therapy are by far the most significant source of human-made radiation exposure to the general public. Some of the major radionuclides used are I-131, Tc-99, Co-60, Ir-192, and Cs-137. These are rarely released into the environment. The public also is exposed to radiation from consumer products, such as tobacco (polonium-210), building materials, combustible fuels (gas, coal, etc.), ophthalmic glass, televisions, luminous watches and dials (tritium), airport X-ray systems, smoke detectors (americium), road construction materials, electron tubes, fluorescent lamp starters, and lantern mantles (thorium). A typical dose for radiation therapy might be 7 Gy spread daily over two months.

Of lesser magnitude, members of the public are exposed to radiation from the nuclear fuel cycle, which includes the entire sequence from mining and milling of uranium to the disposal of the spent fuel. The effects of such exposure have not been reliably measured due to the extremely low doses involved. Estimates of exposure are low enough that proponents of nuclear power liken them to the mutagenic power of wearing trousers for two extra minutes per year (because heat causes mutation).[How to reference and link to summary or text] Opponents use a cancer per dose model to assert that such activities cause several hundred cases of cancer per year, an application of the controversial Linear no-threshold model (LNT).[How to reference and link to summary or text]

In a nuclear war, gamma rays from fallout of nuclear weapons would probably cause the largest number of casualties. Immediately downwind of targets, doses would exceed 300 Gy per hour. As a reference, 4.5 Gy (around 15,000 times the average annual background rate) is fatal to half of a normal population, without medical treatment.

Occupationally exposed individuals are exposed according to the sources with which they work. The radiation exposure of these individuals is carefully monitored with the use of pocket-pen-sized instruments called dosimeters.

Some of the radionuclides of concern include cobalt-60, caesium-137, americium-241, and iodine-131. Examples of industries where occupational exposure is a concern include:

  • Airline crew (the most exposed population)
  • Industrial radiography
  • Medical radiology and nuclear medicine
  • Uranium mining
  • Nuclear power plant and nuclear fuel reprocessing plant workers
  • Research laboratories (government, university and private)

Biological effects

The biological effects of radiation are thought of in terms of their effects on living cells. For low levels of radiation, the biological effects are so small they may not be detected in epidemiological studies. The body repairs many types of radiation and chemical damage. Biological effects of radiation on living cells may result in a variety of outcomes, including:

  1. Cells experience DNA damage and are able to detect and repair the damage.
  2. Cells experience DNA damage and are unable to repair the damage. These cells may go through the process of programmed cell death, or apoptosis, thus eliminating the potential genetic damage from the larger tissue.
  3. Cells experience a nonlethal DNA mutation that is passed on to subsequent cell divisions. This mutation may contribute to the formation of a cancer.

Other observations at the tissue level are more complicated. These include:

  1. In some cases, a small radiation dose reduces the impact of a subsequent, larger radiation dose. This has been termed an 'adaptive response' and is related to hypothetical mechanisms of hormesis.


Main article: Radiation hormesis

Radiation hormesis is the unproven theory that a low level of ionizing radiation (i.e. near the level of Earth's natural background radiation) helps "immunize" cells against DNA damage from other causes (such as free radicals or larger doses of ionizing radiation), and decreases the risk of cancer. The theory proposes that such low levels activate the body's DNA repair mechanisms, causing higher levels of cellular DNA-repair proteins to be present in the body, improving the body's ability to repair DNA damage. This assertion is very difficult to prove (using, for example, statistical cancer studies) because the effects of very low ionizing radiation levels are too small to be statistically measured amid the "noise" of normal cancer rates.

Therefore, the idea of radiation hormesis is considered unproven by regulatory bodies, which generally use the standard "linear, no threshold" (LNT) model, which states that risk of cancer is directly proportional to the dose level of ionizing radiation. The LNT model is safer for regulatory purposes because it assumes worst-case damage due to ionizing radiation; therefore, if regulations are based on it, workers might be over-protected, but they will never be under-protected.

At high ionizing radiation levels, such as the acute doses received near the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bomb blasts, the risk of cancer does increase roughly linearly with dose, which is the origin of the LNT model. Thus, there is a consensus that the LNT method should continue to be used because it is safer from a regulatory perspective and because the effects of very low radiation doses are too small to be measured statistically. See the National Academies Press book.[5].

Chronic radiation exposure

Exposure to ionizing radiation over an extended period of time is called chronic exposure. The natural background radiation is chronic exposure, but a normal level is difficult to determine due to variations. Geographic location and occupation often affect chronic exposure.

Acute radiation exposure

Acute radiation exposure is an exposure to ionizing radiation which occurs during a short period of time. There are routine brief exposures, and the boundary at which it becomes significant is difficult to identify. Extreme examples include

  • Instantaneous flashes from nuclear explosions.
  • Exposures of minutes to hours during handling of highly radioactive sources.
  • Laboratory and manufacturing accidents.
  • Intentional and accidental high medical doses.

The effects of acute events are more easily studied than those of chronic exposure.

Radiation levels

The associations between ionizing radiation exposure and the development of cancer are mostly based on populations exposed to relatively high levels of ionizing radiation, such as Japanese atomic bomb survivors, and recipients of selected diagnostic or therapeutic medical procedures.

Cancers associated with high dose exposure include leukemia[6], thyroid, breast, bladder, colon, liver, lung, esophagus, ovarian, multiple myeloma, and stomach cancers. United States Department of Health and Human Services literature also suggests a possible association between ionizing radiation exposure and prostate, nasal cavity/sinuses, pharyngeal and laryngeal, and pancreatic cancer.

The period of time between radiation exposure and the detection of cancer is known as the latent period. Those cancers that may develop as a result of radiation exposure are indistinguishable from those that occur naturally or as a result of exposure to other chemical carcinogens. Furthermore, National Cancer Institute literature indicates that other chemical and physical hazards and lifestyle factors, such as smoking, alcohol consumption, and diet, significantly contribute to many of these same diseases.

Although radiation may cause cancer at high doses and high dose rates, public health data regarding lower levels of exposure, below about 1,000 mrem (10 mSv), are harder to interpret. To assess the health impacts of lower radiation doses, researchers rely on models of the process by which radiation causes cancer; several models have emerged which predict differing levels of risk.

Studies of occupational workers exposed to chronic low levels of radiation, above normal background, have provided mixed evidence regarding cancer and transgenerational effects. Cancer results, although uncertain, are consistent with estimates of risk based on atomic bomb survivors and suggest that these workers do face a small increase in the probability of developing leukemia and other cancers. One of the most recent and extensive studies of workers was published by Cardis et al. in 2005 [4].

The linear dose-response model suggests that any increase in dose, no matter how small, results in an incremental increase in risk. The linear no-threshold model (LNT) hypothesis is accepted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the EPA and its validity has been reaffirmed by a National Academy of Sciences Committee. (See the BEIR VII report, summarized in [5].) Under this model, about 1% of a population would develop cancer in their lifetime as a result of ionizing radiation from background levels of natural and man-made sources.

Ionizing radiation damages tissue by causing ionization, which disrupts molecules directly and also produces highly reactive free radicals, which attack nearby cells. The net effect is that biological molecules suffer local disruption; this may exceed the body's capacity to repair the damage and may also cause mutations in cells currently undergoing replication.

Two widely studied instances of large-scale exposure to high doses of ionizing radiation are: atomic bomb survivors in 1945; and emergency workers responding to the 1986 Chernobyl accident.

Approximately 134 plant workers and fire fighters engaged at the Chernobyl power plant received high radiation doses (70,000 to 1,340,000 mrem or 700 to 13,400 mSv) and suffered from acute radiation sickness. Of these, 28 died from their radiation injuries.

Longer term effects of the Chernobyl accident have also been studied. There is a clear link (see the UNSCEAR 2000 Report, Volume 2: Effects) between the Chernobyl accident and the unusually large number, approximately 1,800, of thyroid cancers reported in contaminated areas, mostly in children. These were fatal in some cases. Other health effects of the Chernobyl accident are subject to current debate.

Ionizing radiation level examples

Recognized effects of acute radiation exposure are described in the article on radiation poisoning. The exact units of measurement vary, but light radiation sickness begins at about 50–100 rad (0.5–1 gray (Gy), 0.5–1 Sv, 50–100 rem, 50,000–100,000 mrem).

Although the SI unit of radiation dose equivalent is the sievert, chronic radiation levels and standards are still often given in millirems, 1/1000th of a rem (1 mrem = 0.01 mSv).

The following table includes some short-term dosages for comparison purposes.

Level (mSv) Duration Description
0.001-0.01 Hourly Cosmic ray dose on high-altitude flight, depends on position and solar sunspot phase.[7]
0.01 Annual USA dose from nuclear fuel and nuclear power plants [8]
0.01 Daily Natural background radiation, including radon [9]
0.1 Annual Average USA dose from consumer products [8]
0.15 Annual USA EPA cleanup standard [How to reference and link to summary or text]
0.25 Annual USA NRC cleanup standard for individual sites/sources [How to reference and link to summary or text]
0.27 Annual USA dose from natural cosmic radiation (0.16 coastal plain, 0.63 eastern Rocky Mountains) [8]
0.28 Annual USA dose from natural terrestrial sources [8]
0.39 Annual Global level of human internal radiation due to radioactive potassium[How to reference and link to summary or text]
0.46 Acute Estimated largest off-site dose possible from March 28 1979 Three Mile Island accident[How to reference and link to summary or text]
0.48 Day USA NRC public area exposure limit[How to reference and link to summary or text]
0.66 Annual Average USA dose from human-made sources [9]
1 Annual Limit of dose from all DOE facilities to a member of the public who is not a radiation worker [9]
1.1 Annual 1980 average USA radiation worker occupational dose [9]
2 Annual USA average medical and natural background [6]

Human internal radiation due to radon, varies with radon levels [8]

2.2 Acute Average dose from upper gastrointestinal diagnostic X-ray series[How to reference and link to summary or text]
3 Annual USA average dose from all natural sources [9]
3.66 Annual USA average from all sources, including medical diagnostic radiation doses[How to reference and link to summary or text]
few Annual Estimate of cobalt-60 contamination within about 0.5 mile of dirty bomb[How to reference and link to summary or text]
5 Annual USA NRC occupational limit for minors (10% of adult limit)
USA NRC limit for visitors
Orvieto town, Italy, natural [7]
5 Pregnancy USA NRC occupational limit for pregnant women[How to reference and link to summary or text]
6.4 Annual High Background Radiation Area (HBRA) of Yangjiang, China [8]
7.6 Annual Fountainhead Rock Place, Santa Fe, NM natural[How to reference and link to summary or text]
10–50 Acute USA EPA nuclear accident emergency action level [9]
50 Annual USA NRC occupational limit (10 CFR 20)
100 Acute USA EPA acute dose level estimated to increase cancer risk 0.8% [9]
120 30 years Exposure, long duration, Ural mountains, lower limit, lower cancer mortality rate[9]
150 Annual USA NRC occupational eye lens exposure limit [How to reference and link to summary or text]
175 Annual Guarapari, Brazil natural radiation sources
250 Acute USA EPA voluntary maximum dose for emergency non-life-saving work [9]
260 Annual Ramsar, Iran, natural background peak dose [10]
500 Annual USA NRC occupational whole skin, limb skin, or single organ exposure limit
500 30 years Exposure, long duration, Ural mountains, upper limit [11]
750 Acute USA EPA voluntary maximum dose for emergency life-saving work [9]
500-1000 Acute Low-level radiation sickness due to short-term exposure
500-1000 Detonation World War II nuclear bomb victims[How to reference and link to summary or text]
4500-5000 Acute LD50 in humans (from radiation poisoning), with medical treatment.[10]

Monitoring and controlling exposure

Radiation has always been present in the environment and in our bodies. The human body cannot sense ionizing radiation, but a range of instruments exists which are capable of detecting even very low levels of radiation from natural and man-made sources.

Dosimeters measure an absolute dose received over a period of time. Ion-chamber dosimeters resemble pens, and can be clipped to one's clothing. Film-badge dosimeters enclose a piece of photographic film, which will become exposed as radiation passes through it. Ion-chamber dosimeters must be periodically recharged, and the result logged. Film-badge dosimeters must be developed as photographic emulsion so the exposures can be counted and logged; once developed, they are discarded. Another type of dosimeter is the TLD (Thermoluminescent Dosimeter). These dosimeters contain crystals that emit visible light when heated, in direct proportion to their total radiation exposure. Like ion-chamber dosimeters, TLDs can be re-used after they have been 'read'.

Geiger counters and scintillation counters measure the dose rate of ionizing radiation directly.

Limiting exposure

There are four standard ways to limit exposure:

Time: For people who are exposed to radiation in addition to natural background radiation, limiting or minimizing the exposure time will reduce the dose from the radiation source.

Distance: Radiation intensity decreases sharply with distance, according to an inverse square law.

Shielding: Barriers of lead, concrete, or water give effective protection from radiation formed of energetic particles such as gamma rays and neutrons. Some radioactive materials are stored or handled underwater or by remote control in rooms constructed of thick concrete or lined with lead. There are special plastic shields which stop beta particles and air will stop alpha particles. The effectiveness of a material in shielding radiation is determined by its halve value thicknesses, the thickness of material that reduces the radiation by half. This value is a function of the material itself and the energy and type of ionizing radiation.

Containment: Radioactive materials are confined in the smallest possible space and kept out of the environment. Radioactive isotopes for medical use, for example, are dispensed in closed handling facilities, while nuclear reactors operate within closed systems with multiple barriers which keep the radioactive materials contained. Rooms have a reduced air pressure so that any leaks occur into the room and not out of it.

In a nuclear war, an effective fallout shelter reduces human exposure at least 1,000 times. Most people can accept doses as high as 1 Gy[How to reference and link to summary or text], distributed over several months, although with increased risk of cancer later in life. Other civil defense measures can help reduce exposure of populations by reducing ingestion of isotopes and occupational exposure during war time. One of these available measures could be the use of potassium iodide (KI) tablets which effectively block the uptake of dangerous radioactive iodine into the human thyroid gland.

See also

  • Civil defense
  • Electromagnetic radiation
  • Fallout shelter
  • Gamma ray
  • Hormesis
  • Irradiated mail
  • Kearny Fallout Meter
  • Non-ionizing radiation
  • Nuclear warfare
  • Nuclear weapon
  • Particle radiation
  • Petkau effect
  • Radiant energy
  • Radiation poisoning
  • Radiation therapy
  • Radioactive contamination
  • Radioactivity
  • Radiobiology
  • Radioresistance
  • Radiosensitivity
  • National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements


  1. This symbol is included in ISO 21482:2007. ISO International Standards are protected by copyright and may be purchased from ISO or its members (please visit for more information). ISO has not reviewed the accuracy or veracity of this information.
  2. Lewis, Leon, Paul E Caplan (January 1950). The Shoe-Fitting Fluoroscope as a Radiation Hazard. California Medicine 72 (1): 27.
  3. [1].
  4. See this web site.
  5. Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation: BEIR VII Phase 2.
  6. "A Nested Case-Control Study of Leukemia and Ionizing Radiation at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard", NIOSH Publication No. 2005-104. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
  7. UNSCEAR 2000 report, Volume 1, Annex B, ``Exposures from natural radiation sources, pp 88. See figure 3. available online at [2]
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 Oak Ridge National Laboratory (
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 9.6 9.7 9.8 Oak Ridge National Laboratory (
  10. Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation

External links

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).