The Risks of Ionizing Radiation

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There are various types of radiation surrounding us. As human beings, we are primarily exposed to natural forms of radiation such as radon, cosmic (space) radiation, and naturally occurring radioactive elements found in the Earth. We are also exposed to man-made radiation including medical radiation. Nearly half of the radiation in which the US population is exposed to comes from medical sources such as CT scans, x-rays, and nuclear medicine. In 1899, Ernest Rutherford discovered that the radiation emitted by uranium consisted of two kinds of rays: one with weak penetrating power, (alpha rays) and another with stronger penetrating power (beta rays). A third and even more penetrating kind of ionizing radiation (gamma ray) was discovered by the French physicist Paul Villard. Alpha rays have the least penetrating ability. They cannot permeate the outermost layer of the skin and can be stopped by a sheet of paper; furthermore alpha particles are not harmful to living things, unless the alpha-emitting substance is inhaled, ingested or comes into contact with the lens of the eye. Beta rays are less penetrating than gamma rays or x-rays, but more than alpha rays. Beta particles have little penetrating powers and can only penetrate from a few feet. Beta particles can be stopped by wood or aluminum. Gamma Rays are the most penetrating type of radiation of the three. Gamma rays have no mass, travel at the speed of light and do not lose their energy as rapidly as alpha or beta particles and can only be stopped by dense lead or concrete. Exposure can lead to radiation sickness, cancer, and eventually death. There have been many contributors to the discovery of radiation and the development of radiation science throughout history. In 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen, for example, discovered “a new kind of ray” which could travel through solid wood or flesh - the x-ray. It originated at the fluorescent spot where an electron beam struck a metal target. An incorrect hypothesis by Henri Becquerel in 1896, that these x-rays and visible fluorescent light were produced by the same mechanism, led to the discovery of radioactivity. He discovered that the rays emitted by uranium caused gases to ionize and they could be deflected by electric or magnetic fields. Ionizing radiation has the potential to be both hazardous and beneficial. Due to the significant negative possibilities associated with ionizing radiation such as health risks, environmental hazards, and nuclear radiation, it can easily be concluded that the risks of ionizing radiation, often times outweigh the benefits. There are numerous benefits to ionizing radiation. Some of these benefits include nuclear power, nuclear medicine (cancer treatment), and insect control. Many scientists working in the field of radiation health physics feel that being exposed to low levels of ionizing radiation may be beneficial to humans and animals. The exposure to low or modest levels of ionizing radiation challenges the body via mild oxidative stress, enforcing or training the immune system to produce higher levels of anti-inflammatory compounds and to engage in higher level of tissue repair and regeneration. Nuclear power has many benefits, one of which is that it is a clean way to produce energy and it does not result in the emission of poisonous gases like carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide into the atmosphere. Another benefit of nuclear power is that it is a reliable source for power since on average nuclear reactors have an expected life span of 40 years, that can be extended for another 20 years. A source of nuclear power is Uranium which is found abundantly in the earth’s crust; deposits are located in Canada and Australia. Nuclear reactors are a well-known benefit of ionizing radiation. They generate heat through fission, some of which can be converted into usable energy, which produces electrical power. When it comes to nuclear...
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