I’m going to put this very simply: Radiation kills people. It does this in a very simple and very effective way, it alters DNA.When radiation collides with molecules in living cells it can damage them. If the DNA in the nucleus of a cell is damaged, the cell may become cancerous. The cell then goes out of control, divides rapidly and causes serious health problems.
The greater the dose of radiation a cell gets, the greater the chance that the cell will become cancerous. However, very high doses of radiation can kill the cell completely.
Now this is as double edged sword. Medically high doses of radiation focused on a tumour can actually kill it. Non-medical radiation however is not focused, and when it leaks out of a drum as it has at Hanford, or from an underground tunnel as it has in Carlsbad, or when it is thrown into the air as it was in Fukushima, there is no control over the amount that people are exposed to.
The type of radiation can also have an effect on the health of those who come into contact with it. You can read the symptoms of radiation poisoning here in Radiation 101.
Alpha radiation is a heavy, very short-range particle and is actually an ejected helium nucleus. Some characteristics of alpha radiation are:
- Most alpha radiation is not able to penetrate human skin.
- Alpha-emitting materials can be harmful to humans if the materials are inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through open wounds.
- A variety of instruments has been designed to measure alpha radiation. Special training in the use of these instruments is essential for making accurate measurements.
- A thin-window Geiger-Mueller (GM) probe can detect the presence of alpha radiation.
- Instruments cannot detect alpha radiation through even a thin layer of water, dust, paper, or other material, because alpha radiation is not penetrating.
- Alpha radiation travels only a short distance (a few inches) in the air, but is not an external hazard.
- Alpha radiation is not able to penetrate clothing.
Examples of some alpha emitters: radium, radon, uranium, thorium.
Beta radiation is a light, short-range particle and is actually an ejected electron. Some characteristics of beta radiation are:
- Beta radiation may travel several feet in the air and is moderately penetrating.
- Beta radiation can penetrate human skin to the “germinal layer,” where new skin cells are produced. If high levels of beta-emitting contaminants are allowed to remain on the skin for a prolonged period of time, they may cause skin injury.
- Beta-emitting contaminants may be harmful if deposited internally.
- Most beta emitters can be detected with a survey instrument and a thin-window GM probe (e.g., “pancake” type). Some beta emitters, however, produce very low-energy, poorly penetrating radiation that may be difficult or impossible to detect. Examples of these difficult-to-detect beta emitters are hydrogen-3 (tritium), carbon-14, and sulfur-35.
- Clothing provides some protection against beta radiation.
Examples of some pure beta emitters: strontium-90, carbon-14, tritium, and sulfur-35.
Gamma and X Radiation
Gamma radiation and x rays are highly penetrating electromagnetic radiation. Some characteristics of these radiations are:
- Gamma radiation or x rays are able to travel many feet in the air and many inches in human tissue. They readily penetrate most materials and are sometimes called “penetrating” radiation.
- X rays are like gamma rays. X rays, too, are penetrating radiation. Sealed radioactive sources and machines that emit gamma radiation and x rays respectively constitute mainly an external hazard to humans.
- Gamma radiation and x rays are electromagnetic radiation like visible light, radiowaves, and ultraviolet light. These electromagnetic radiations differ only in the amount of energy they have. Gamma rays and x rays are the most energetic of these.
- Dense materials are needed for shielding from gamma radiation. Clothing provides little shielding from penetrating radiation, but will prevent contamination of the skin by gamma-emitting radioactive materials.
- Gamma radiation is easily detected by survey meters with a sodium iodide detector probe.
- Gamma radiation and/or characteristic x rays frequently accompany the emission of alpha and beta radiation during radioactive decay.
Examples of some gamma emitters: iodine-131, cesium-137, cobalt-60, radium-226, and technetium-99m.
It should be noted that the distances given for the radioactive particles travel ability assumes that the source and the target are stationary and in a fixed environment. These distances do not allow for travel via wind and weather cycles, for example, from Japan to the West Coast of the USA.
Radiation obeys the Inverse Square Law once it is emitted from it’s source. As an example, the strength of radiation at two yards from the source will be 1/4 of that at one yard from the source, BUT this only happens because the area covered by the radiation is four times the original area. Put simply it is only less intense because it is so widespread.
This is why governments can claim such low doses at a distance from the source, it’s a law of physics. What they don’t tell you however, is that the damage caused by the particles that do travel is not diminished.
A particle of Strontium-90 has a half-life of 29.1 years. If it gets into the body 80% of it will pass through the system without issue. The other 20% will settle into teeth and bone leading to a proliferation of cells and excess boney growth and tumours.
Cobalt-60 has a half-life of 5.27 years. it damages the liver, kidneys and bone causing cancers in those areas.
Just because the INTENSITY of the radiation received is reduced over distance it is not safe due to the much wider AREA the radiation covers. Those particles that do not decay in the time it takes the wind to blow them from Japan to the United States or anywhere else are still there. There is the same amount of particles, but spread over a wider area, and they are just as damaging if they get into your body.
Numbers are very easy to manipulate, but sometimes looking at the science behind them can unravel the lies.
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Contributed by Lizzie Bennett of Underground Medic.
Lizzie Bennett retired from her job as a senior operating department practitioner in the UK earlier this year. Her field was trauma and accident and emergency and she has served on major catastrophe teams around the UK. Lizzie publishes Underground Medic on the topic of preparedness.