Radiation Basics

Radiation and Life

Adapted from Eric J. Hall’s book, “Radiation and Life”

Radiation is energy traveling through space. Sunshine is one of the most familiar forms of radiation. It delivers light, heat and suntans. We control its effect on us with sunglasses, shade, air conditioners, hats, clothes and sunscreen.  There would be no life on earth without lots of sunlight, but we have increasingly recognized that too much of it on our bodies is not a good thing. In fact it may be dangerous, so we control our exposure to it.

Sunshine consists of radiation in a range of wavelengths from long-wave infrared to short-wavelength ultraviolet, which creates the hazard.  Beyond ultraviolet are higher energy kinds of radiation which are used in medicine and which we all get in low doses from space, from the air, and from the earth. Collectively we can refer to these kinds of radiation as ionizing  radiation. It can cause damage to matter, particularly living tissue. At high levels it is therefore dangerous, so it is necessary to control our exposure. 

Background radiation is that which is naturally and inevitably present in our environment. Levels of this can vary greatly. People living in granite areas or on mineralized sands receive more terrestrial radiation than others, while people living or working at high altitudes receive more cosmic radiation. A lot of our natural exposure is due to radon, a gas which seeps from the earth's crust and is present in the air we breathe.

The Unstable Atom

Radiation comes from atoms, the basic building blocks of matter.  Most atoms are stable; a carbon-12 atom, for example, remains a carbon-12 atom forever, and an oxygen-16 atom remains an oxygen-16 atom forever, but certain atoms eventually disintegrate into a totally new atom. These atoms are said to be 'unstable' or 'radioactive'. An unstable atom has excess internal energy, with the result that the nucleus can undergo a spontaneous change towards a more stable form. This is called 'radioactive decay'.  When an atom of a radioisotope decays, it gives off some of its excess energy as radiation in the form of gamma rays or fast-moving sub-atomic particles. One can describe the emissions as gamma, beta and alpha radiation. Apart from the normal measures of mass and volume, the amount of radioactive material is given in curie (Ci), a measure which enables us to compare the typical radioactivity of some natural and other materials.


Radioactivity of some natural and other materials

1 adult human (2.7 X 10-9 Ci/kg) 1.89 X 10-7 Ci
2.2 lbs. of coffee 2.70 X 10-8 Ci
2.2 lbs. of super phosphate fertilizer 1.35 X 10-7 Ci
The air in a 1076 sq. foot Australian home (radon) 8.12 X 10-8 Ci
The air in many 1076 sq. foot European homes (radon) 8.12 X 10-7 Ci
1 household smoke detector (with americium) 8.12 X 10-7 Ci
Radioisotope for medical diagnosis 1.89 X 103 Ci
Radioisotope source for medical therapy 2702.7 Ci
2.2 lbs. of 50-year old vitrified high-level nuclear waste 270.27 Ci
1 luminous Exit sign (1970s) 27.027 Ci
2.2 lbs. of uranium 675.68 X 106 Ci
2.2 lbs. of uranium ore (Canadian, 15%) 675.68 X 106 Ci
2.2 lbs. of uranium ore (Australian, 0.3%) 13.51 X 106 Ci
2.2 lbs. of  low-level radioactive waste 27.03 X 106 Ci
2.2 lbs. of coal ash 5.41 X 10-8 Ci
2.2 lbs. of granite 2.70 X 10-8 Ci




Though the intrinsic radioactivity is the same, the radiation dose received by someone handling a kilogram of high grade uranium ore will be much greater than for the same exposure to a kilogram of separated uranium, since the ore contains a number of short-lived decay products.

Radioactive Decay

Atoms in a radioactive substance decay in a random fashion but at a characteristic rate. The length of time this takes, the number of steps required and the kinds of radiation released at each step are well known.

The half-life is the time taken for half of the atoms of a radioactive substance to decay. Half-lives can range from less than a millionth of a second to millions of years, depending upon the element concerned. After one half-life the level of radioactivity of a substance is halved, after two half-lives it is reduced to one quarter, after three half-lives to one-eighth and so on.

All uranium atoms are mildly radioactive. The following figure for uranium-238 shows the series of different radioisotopes it becomes as it decays, the type of radiation given off at each step and the 'half-life' of each step on the way to stable, non-radioactive lead-206. The shorter-lived each kind of radioisotope, the more radiation it emits per unit mass. Much of the natural radioactivity in rocks and soil comes from this decay chain.

Ionizing Radiation

Here we are concerned mainly with ionizing radiation from the atomic nucleus. It occurs in two forms, rays and particles, at the high frequency end of the energy spectrum.

There are several types of ionizing radiation:

X-rays and gamma rays, like light, represent energy transmitted in a wave without the movement of material, just as heat and light from a fire or the sun travel through space. X-rays and gamma rays are virtually identical, except that X-rays are generally produced artificially rather than coming from the atomic nucleus. Unlike light, X-rays and gamma rays have great penetrating power and can pass through the human body. Thick barriers of concrete, lead or water are used as protection from them.

Alpha particles consist of two protons and two neutrons, in the form of atomic nuclei. They thus have a positive electrical charge and are emitted from naturally occurring heavy elements such as uranium and radium, as well as from some man-made elements. Because of their relatively large size, alpha particles collide readily with matter and lose their energy quickly. They therefore have little penetrating power and can be stopped by the first layer of skin or a sheet of paper.  However, if alpha sources are taken into the body, for example by breathing or swallowing radioactive dust, alpha particles can affect the body's cells. Inside the body, because they give up their energy over a relatively short distance, alpha particles can inflict more severe biological damage than other radiations.

Beta particles are fast-moving electrons ejected from the nuclei of atoms. These particles are much smaller than alpha particles and can penetrate up to 5/64 of an inch of water or human flesh. Beta particles are emitted from many radioactive elements. They can be stopped by a sheet of aluminum a few millimeters thick.

Neutrons are particles which are also very penetrating. On Earth they mostly come from the splitting, or fissioning, of certain atoms inside a nuclear reactor. Water and concrete are the most commonly used shields against neutron radiation from the core of the nuclear reactor.


It is important to understand that alpha, beta, gamma and X-radiation do not cause the body, or any object around the source, to become radioactive. However, most materials in their natural state (including body tissue) contain measurable amounts of radioactivity.

Measuring Ionizing Radiation


The human senses cannot detect radiation or discern whether a material is radioactive. However, a variety of instruments can detect and measure radiation reliably and accurately. The amount of ionizing radiation, or 'dose', received by a person is measured in terms of the energy absorbed in the body tissue, and is expressed in RAD. One rad is 0.01 joules deposited per kilogram of mass. Equal exposure to different types of radiation expressed as RAD, do not however, necessarily produce equal biological effects. One rad of alpha radiation, for example, will have a greater effect than one rad of beta radiation. When we talk about radiation effects, we therefore express the radiation as effective dose, in a unit called the REM (Roentgen Equivalent Man).  Regardless of the type of radiation, one rem of radiation produces the same biological effect. (100 rem = 1 Sv)  Smaller quantities are expressed in 'mrem' (one thousandth) or 'µrem' (one millionth of a rem). We will use the most common unit, rem, here.

What Are The Health Risks From Ionizing Radiation?

It has been known for many years that large doses of ionizing radiation, very much larger than background levels, can cause a measurable increase in cancers and leukemias ('cancer of the blood') after some years delay. It must also be assumed, because of experiments on plants and animals, that ionizing radiation can also cause genetic mutations that affect future generations, although there has been no evidence of radiation-induced mutation in humans. At very high levels, radiation can cause sickness and death within weeks of exposure - see Table (on next page).

But what are the chances of developing cancer from low doses of radiation? The prevailing assumption is that any dose of radiation, no matter how small, involves a possibility of risk to human health. However there is no scientific evidence of risk at doses below approximatly 5 rem in a short period of time or about 10 rem over a period of one year.

Higher accumulated doses of radiation might produce a cancer which would only be observed several - up to twenty - years after the radiation exposure. This delay makes it impossible to say with any certainty which of many possible agents were the cause of a particular cancer. In western countries, about a quarter of people die from cancers, with smoking, dietary factors, genetic factors and strong sunlight being among the main causes. Radiation is a weak carcinogen, but undue exposure could certainly increase health risks.

On the other hand, large doses of radiation directed specifically at a tumor are used in radiation therapy to kill cancerous cells, and thereby often save lives (usually in conjunction with chemotherapy or surgery). Much larger doses are used to kill harmful bacteria in food, and to sterilize bandages and other medical equipment. Radiation has become a valuable tool in our modern world.

How Much Ionizing Radiation is Dangerous?

Radiation levels and their effects

The following table gives an indication of the likely effects of a range of whole body radiation doses and dose rates to individuals:

1,000 rem as a short-term and whole-body dose would cause immediate illness, such as nausea and decreased white blood cell count, and subsequent death within a few weeks.
Between 200 and 1000 rem in a short-term dose would cause severe radiation sickness with increasing likelihood that this would be fatal.

100 rem in a short term dose is about the threshold for causing immediate radiation sickness in a person of average physical attributes, but would be unlikely to cause death. Above 100 rem, severity of illness increases with dose.
If doses greater than 100 rem occur over a long period they are less likely to have early health effects but they create a definite risk that cancer will develop many years later.

Above about 10 rem, the probability of cancer (rather than the severity of illness) increases with dose. The estimated risk of fatal cancer is 5 of every 100 persons exposed to a dose of 100 rem.

5 rem is, conservatively, the lowest dose at which there is any evidence of cancer being caused in adults. It is also the highest dose which is allowed by regulation in any one year of occupational exposure. Dose rates greater than 5 rem/yr arise from natural background levels in several parts of the world but do not cause any discernible harm to local populations.

2 rem/yr averaged over 5 years is the limit for radiological personnel such as employees in the nuclear industry, uranium or mineral sands miners and hospital workers (who are all closely monitored).

1 rem/yr is the maximum actual dose rate received by any Australian uranium miner.

300-500 mrem/yr is the typical dose rate (above background) received by uranium miners in Australia and Canada.

300 mrem/yr (approx) is the typical background radiation from natural sources in North America, including an average of almost 200 mrem/yr from radon in air.

200 mrem/yr (approx) is the typical background radiation from natural sources, including an average of 70mrem/yr from radon in air. This is close to the minimum dose received by all humans anywhere on Earth.

30-60 mrem/yr is a typical range of dose rates from artificial sources of radiation, mostly medical.

5 mrem/yr, a very small fraction of natural background radiation, is the design target for maximum radiation at the perimeter fence of a nuclear electricity generating station. In practice, the actual dose is less.

What is the risk estimate?

According to the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation committee V (BEIR V), the risk of cancer death is 0.08% per rem for doses received rapidly (acute) and might be 2-4 times (0.04% per rem) less than that for doses received over a long period of time (chronic). These risk estimates are an average for all ages, males and females, and all forms of cancer. There is a great deal of uncertainty associated with the estimate.

Risk from radiation exposure has been estimated by other scientific groups. The other estimates are not the exact same as the BEIR V estimates, due to differing methods of risk and assumptions used in the calculations, but all are close.

Risk comparison

The real question is: how much will radiation exposure increase my chances of cancer death over my lifetime.

To answer this, we need to make a few general statements of understanding. One is that in the US, the current death rate from cancer is approximately 20 percent, so out of any group of 10,000 United States citizens, about 2,000 of them will die of cancer. Second, that contracting cancer is a random process,

where given a set population, we can estimate that about 20 percent will die from cancer, but we cannot say which individuals will die. Finally, that a conservative estimate of risk from low doses of radiation is thought to be one in which the risk is linear with dose. That is, that the risk increases with a subsequent increase in dose. Most scientists believe that this is a conservative model of the risk.

So, now the risk estimates: If you were to take a large population, such as 10,000 people and expose them to one rem (to their whole body), you would expect approximately eight additional deaths (0.08% X 10,000 X 1 rem). So, instead of the 2,000 people expected to die from cancer naturally, you would now have 2,008. This small increase in the expected number of deaths would not be seen in this group, due to natural fluctuations in the rate of cancer.

What needs to be remembered is that it is not known that 8 people will die, but that there is a risk of 8 additional deaths in a group of 10,000 people if they would all receive 1rem instantaneously.

If they would receive the 1 rem over a long period of time, such as a year, the risk would be less than half this (<4 expected fatal cancers).

Risks can be looked at in many ways. Here are a few ways to help visualize risk:

One way often used is to look at the number of "days lost" out of a population due to early death from separate causes, then dividing those days lost between the population to get an "Average Life expectancy lost" due to those causes. The following is a table of life expectancy lost for several causes:

Health Risk

Est. life expectancy lost

Smoking 20 cigarettes a day

6 years

Overweight (15%)

2 years

Alcohol (US Avg.)

1 year

All Accidents

207 days

All Natural Hazards

7 days

Occupational dose (300 mrem/yr)

15 days

Occupational dose (1 rem/yr)

51 days

You can also use the same approach to looking at risks on the job:

Industry Type

Est. life expectancy lost

All Industries

60 days


320 days


227 days

Mining and quarrying

167 days


40 days

Occupational dose (300 mrem/yr)

15 days

Occupational dose (1 rem/yr)

51 days

These are estimates taken from the NRC Draft guide DG-8012 and were adapted from B.L Cohen and I.S. Lee, "Catalogue of Risks Extended and Updates", Health Physics, Vol. 61, September 1991.

Another way of looking at risk, is to look at the Relative Risk of 1 in a million chances of dying of activities common to our society:

Smoking 1.4 cigarettes (lung cancer)

Eating 40 tablespoons of peanut butter

Spending 2 days in New York City (air pollution)

Driving 40 miles in a car (accident)

Flying 2500 miles in a jet (accident)

Canoeing for 6 minutes

Receiving 10 mrem of radiation (cancer)

Adapted from DOE Radiation Worker Training, based on work by B.L Cohen, Sc.D.

Background Radiation

Naturally occurring background radiation is the main source of exposure for most people. Levels typically range from about 150-350 mrem per year but can be more than 5rem/yr. The highest known level of background radiation affecting a substantial population is in Kerala and Madras States in India where some 140,000 people receive doses which average over           1.5 rem/year from gamma radiation, in addition to a similar dose from radon. Comparable levels occur in Brazil and Sudan, with average exposures up to about 4 rem/yr to many people.

Several places are known in Iran, India and Europe where natural background radiation gives an annual dose of more than 5 rem and up to   26 rem (at Ramsar in Iran). Lifetime doses from natural radiation range

up to a couple thousand rem. However, there is no evidence of increased cancers or other health problems arising from these high natural levels.

Manmade Radiation

Ionizing radiation is also generated in a range of medical, commercial and industrial activities. The most familiar and, in national terms, the largest of these sources of exposure is medical X-rays. Natural radiation contributes about 88% of the annual dose to the population and medical procedures most of the remaining 12%. Natural and artificial radiations are not different in kind or effect.

Protection from Radiation

Radiation is very easily detected. There is a range of simple, sensitive instruments capable of detecting minute amounts of radiation from natural and man-made sources. There are three ways in which people are protected from identified radiation sources:

Limiting time: For people who are exposed to radiation in addition to natural background radiation through their work, the dose is reduced and the risk of illness essentially eliminated by limiting exposure time. Proper job planning is essential in achieving lowest exposure time. Always plan for the unexpected to eliminate delays in the exposure area.

Distance: In the same way that heat from a fire is less the further away you are, so the intensity of radiation decreases with distance from its source. Distance is the easiest, fastest and most practical way to limit exposure.

Shielding: Barriers of lead, concrete or water give good protection from penetrating radiation such as gamma rays. Highly radioactive materials are therefore often stored or handled under water, or by remote control in rooms constructed of thick concrete or lined with lead.


Standards and Regulation

Much of the evidence which has led to today's standards derives from the atomic bomb survivors in 1945, which were exposed to high doses incurred in a very short time. In setting occupational risk estimates, some allowance has been made for the body's ability to repair damage from small exposures, but for low-level radiation exposure the degree of protection may be unduly conservative.

Most countries have their own systems of radiological protection which are often based on the recommendations of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP). The 'authority' of the ICRP comes from the scientific standing of its members and the merit of its recommendations.

Who is in charge?

Ultimately, you are. All of the sources of radiation, other than natural, are regulated by laws passed by Congress. Like any other law, you have your right to voice your views and opinions about it. The regulations that control the use of radioactivity in our country are based upon recommendations of science organizations like the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), the National Council on Radiation Protection (NCRP), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations (UN), and the Health Physics Society (HPS). Governing bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) review these recommendations and propose the regulations that industry and government must follow. These are then passed by Congress, if found to be acceptable, and published in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFRs).


The CFR limits the general public to radiation exposure of  100 mrem/year, with no more than 2 mrem of exposure in any one hour (ref. 10 CFR 20.1301).