Radiation, also commonly referred to as electromagnetic radiation (EMR), electromagnetic chaos (EMC), and electromagnetic frequencies (EMF), is not a simple topic to discuss. Every day, people are subject to some degree of radiation exposure, whether it be from natural sources such as radon, or from unnatural, man-made sources such as medical tests, body scanners, cell phones, and many more technologies. There has been much debate over just how harmful radiation is, but one thing has been made clear through hundreds of studies and years of research – no amount of radiation is, can, or should be deemed “safe”.
What is radiation and where does it come from?
Radiation is made up of invisible energy waves resulting from unstable atoms becoming stable and can be both naturally occurring as well as unnaturally occurring. The naturally occurring radiation humans are exposed to every day primarily stems from:
- Radon gases coming from the decay of radium in the earth (55%)
- Thorium & potassium found in the earth’s crust (8%)
- Sun, space (this is known as Cosmic Radiation) (8%)
The remaining radiation exposure, which is unnatural or man-made radiation, comes from:
- X-ray of any kind
- Microwave ovens
- Various medical tests such as mammograms or chemotherapy
- Body scanner’s found in airports
- Nuclear plants
- Many more technologies
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), approximately 80% of the radiation humans are exposed to is naturally occurring, while the remaining 20% branches from man-made radiation.
How is radiation measured?
Radiation is measured in units called “rem” unless when referring to the metric system, in which case it would be referred to as “sieverts”. Here are two different charts pulled from WINA, Radiologyinfo.org, Reuters, and Harvard Medical School:
|Average annual background exposure in the U.S.||3||300|
|Cardiac nuclear stress test||9.4||940|
|CT scan of the abdomen||10||1,000|
|Average exposure of evacuees from Belarus after 1986 Chernobyl disaster||31||3,100|
|Annual dose limit* for nuclear power plant workers||50||5,000|
|Spike recorded at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant||400 per hour||40,000 per hour|
|Acute radiation sickness begins||1,000 (or 1 sievert)||100,000|
Sources: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Health Physics Society, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, International Atomic Energy Agency
In 1986, the largest nuclear power plant eruption occurred in Ukraine known as the Chernobyl disaster. In this event people were exposed to more nuclear radiation than ever before recorded in history. More recently, the nuclear plant incident in Fukushima, Japan harnessed growing concerns globally not only for the people in Japan, but also for people in other parts of the world that may be impacted by the radiation, as it would slowly encompass different regions. Here are resources to keep an up-to-date mental note of just how bad the nuclear radiation disaster is at this very moment. Note that levels have changed since the time of this writing.
To what extent should people worry about radiation?
Unfortunately, radiation exposure is unavoidable as radiation is everywhere at all times. No matter where you are, some type of radiation is being emitted near you either by a nuclear plant nearby, radio towers, the TV in your living room, or from within the earth’s crust. There are many factors that must be taken into consideration when discussing radiation exposure and its dangers. Here are factors to consider, with each one able to be controlled to some extent for radiation protection.
- Amount or quantity of radiation exposure
- Concentration, or focus of radiation exposure
- Proximity of radiation exposure
- Intensity of radiation exposure
- Duration of radiation exposure
Here is a Radiation Calculator provided by the Environmental Protection Agency to see just how much radiation you may be exposed to annually. Having an idea of how much radiation you are actually exposed to on a daily basis can make a huge difference when it comes to protecting your health from radiation. If the amount of radiation seems high you should reduce the amount of activities which involve radiation.
The amount of radiation the average person is exposed to annually is 620 mrem, according to the EPA. Of course, exposure varies based on how often X-rays are administered, how often flights are taken, how much radon is in our homes, and many other factors.
The concentration of radiation is also very important. As an example. there has been much debate over body scanner’s in airports and the radiation emitted by them to travelers. To someone who travels all the time, this radiation is a larger threat than to someone who seldom travels. Though there has been much dispute over this topic, with some arguing that the scanners pose no health risk, many doctors couldn’t disagree more. Below is an excerpt from a letter written by doctors John Sedat Ph.D., David Agard, Ph.D., Marc Shuman, M.D., and Robert Stroud, Ph.D from the University of California, San Francisco faculty. There is simply a significant difference between radiation that is concentrated to one specific area and radiation allocated throughout the entire body.
“Unlike other scanners, these new devices operate at relatively low beam energies (28keV). The majority of their energy is delivered to the skin and the underlying tissue. Thus, while the dose would be safe if it were distributed throughout the volume of the entire body, the dose to the skin may be dangerously high.”
The quote above can be found in this article.
Similarly, cell phones cause a relatively low amount of radiation, but all of that radiation isfocused directly on the brain. The microwaves exuded from a cell phone, depending on how far the antenna is from the head (proximity), can penetrate as much as 1 1/2 inches into the brain. These microwaves cook the brain from the inside out just as a microwave oven cooks food from the inside out. The effects of radiation can be detrimental over a long period of time, especially when the radiation is focused on such a sensitive part of the body.
As mentioned, the radiation coming from sources like body scanners and cell phones aren’t particularly powerful. If those waves were as powerful as waves stemming from an explosion of a nuclear reactor, things would be very different. The intensity of the nuclear radiation resulting from a nuclear reactor is much more harmful. This radiation also differs from a cell phone since the radiation from an explosion hangs around for a much longer duration, causing even more need for radiation protection.
Either way, it isn’t just one source of radiation which poses a health threat – it’s all of them combined. Someone might say that the radiation emitted from airport body scanner’s is safe, or that the radiation from medical tests are so low that there is no worry. However, whether they are safe at low doses or not, when all of these sources are combined, the chance of reaching acute radiation sickness increases.
So are single factors such as the scanners a huge threat alone? Maybe not, but including that radiation dose with all other “small” doses of radiation coming from various other sources may eventually lead to a health problem.