Updated: Apr 15
People's penchant for fear of the unknown or the misunderstood is all too common and can be found in many examples throughout human history, from fear of different cultures and nationalities to new and complex ideas and subjects.
This very penchant applies to radiation. The general public all too often fears radiation as this malicious force that will play havoc with your health or even kill you. This fear is rooted in radiation as a very complex subject that many people either cannot understand or do not take the time to understand. As a result, with this knowledge vacuum to fill, certain interest groups look to depict radiation strictly in black and white terms, almost always negatively. As a result, many people see radiation, and anything connect to it, as something to be feared, avoided, and shunned, rather than embraced, respected, and handled appropriately.
In fact, radiation is best understood as a bearer of immense human and environmental benefit that must be handled responsibly and carefully, otherwise it can indeed cause significant harm. To grasp this understanding, let us start with the basics.
What is Radiation?
Radiation is split into two categories: non-ionizing and ionizing. Non-ionizing radiation consists of such things as microwaves, visible light, infrared light, and ultraviolet. Sources of non-ionizing radiation do not have enough energy to ionize atoms or molecules, and therefore they pose much less of a health risk, although this is not to say that they are entirely innocuous: solar ultraviolet radiation, for example, leads to some 60,000 skin melanoma-related deaths each year.
Ionizing radiation is energy released by atoms in two forms: particles (alpha, beta, and neutrons) and electromagnetic waves (gamma and X-rays); cosmic rays from the sun, with which we are bombarded everyday, also fit in this category. Alpha particles are the weakest, with a piece of paper sufficient to stop them, while neutrons are the strongest, penetrating even lead before being stopped by concrete. Note that lead stops X-rays, which is why a lead shield is used to protect you when taking X-rays images at the doctor's office.
Ionizing radiation is generated either naturally - commonly referred to as Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM) - or artificially. There are some 60 types of NORM in the environment, and radon gas is the most significant amongst them in terms of human exposure (more on this below). Sources of artificial radiation are widely used across many industries, including nuclear, medicine, food and drink production, materials manufacturing, and more. It is through diagnostic radiology, nuclear medicine, radiotherapy, and image-guided interventions that human exposure to ionizing radiation is most prevalent in the medicinal field.
Is Radiation Good or Bad?
Whether radiation is good or bad depends on a number of factors, but the overarching, general answer is a definitive 'good'. From cosmic rays and NORM to radioactive materials naturally present in the human body (carbon-14, polonium-210, and potassium-40), radiation is not only a fact of life, it is necessary for life to exist. Overall, there are some general guidelines to take into account:
1. Radiation as a gym
Natural exposure to the radiation around has the equivalent of putting your body through a workout: as lifting weights damages your muscles, causing your muscle tissue to come back bigger and stronger, the same is true with radiation's effect on body tissue and organs, namely a radiation dose damages their cells, acting as a stimulus to regenerate as healthy, strong cells. Note that this is dependent on the dose being low and/or over a long period of time. Still, given that the global average annual personal dose from all types of radiation combined is well below the threshold for even the slightest concern, this gym analogy is, much more often than not, true.
2. Handle responsibly
Companies all across the economy, from mining and construction materials to food and drink production, nuclear medicine, and everything in between, use various types of radiation (known as radionuclides) in their production processes. It is imperative for these companies to properly handle, track, use, transport, and dispose of all their radionuclides not just to ensure basic safety and operations, but also to be compliant with regulations, as violations can often spell dire fiscal, operational, and personal consequences. For example, South Africa's Hazardous Substances Act 15 of 1973 (including amendments and supplements to it) envisages sizable fines and license suspensions/cancellations for companies and imprisonment for individuals. CareTac, as an expert in radiation protection and management, provides tailor-made radiation protection and management programs for companies wishing to ensure full, consistent compliance with this Act and other rules and regulations.
3. Don't fret about nuclear energy.
Organizations, such as Green Peace and Friends of the Earth, bend over backwards to sow fear and distrust of nuclear energy based on the premise that the radiation resulting from it is too great a health and environmental hazard. Not only do these organization rely on half-truths, hypotheticals, and plain nonsense, authoritative organizations, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, show that the consequences of even the most notorious incidents like Chernobyl are hugely exaggerated, misrepresented, and pale in comparison to the daily ills brought on by the fossil-fuels industry.
4. Address your NORM issues
What the average person should be concerned about with radiation is what role radon gas plays in his or her life. Radon - an odorless, colorless, and invisible radioactive gas - decays naturally from uranium. At outdoor levels, radon does not warrant any concern. Indoors and enclosed spaces, however, are another story: radon seeps in through foundations into buildings and, without the proper ventilation, can accumulate to dangerous levels. On the outside, radon is not a problem, but when breathed in, radon ends up in your lungs, where its alpha decay products progressively damage lung tissue. As lung tissue cells regenerate, they may do so improperly, leading to lung cancer. Radon is estimated to be the cause of 3% to 14% of all lung cancers in any given country, with around 21,000 people dying of radon-induced lung cancer in the United States every year.
Fortunately, this is an entirely fixable problem. All you have to do is test your home, office, or any other structure and, if needed, install a radon mitigation system (usually consisting of pipes, sealing, and ventilation fans, although there are other solutions). CareTac provides the gamma of radon testing and can design and install radon mitigation systems, all across South Africa.
Knowledge is Power
Radiation in its various forms is a huge benefit to human health, well-being, and prosperity; however, like with anything else, it needs to be understood, handled, and utilized properly, otherwise the consequences can range from unfortunate but manageable to dire, both for individuals and companies. CareTac is proud to offer the knowledge and solutions to make sure that radiation is utilized correctly for the benefit of all, while any negative consequences are mitigated as much as possible.