Radiation & the Effects of Radiation 101
Many of you probably have heard of some of the detriments of radiation, but you may be confused by all the different terms and categories; ionizing radiation, non-ionizing radiation, radiofrequency, microwaves, X-rays. What does it all mean?!
Let me explain my understanding. I had to do a little clarifying myself and brush off my physics book.
Okay, you probably remember looking at pictures of the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) in science class. You know, that pretty-rainbow colored diagram with various pictorial representations that included X-rays, the light spectrum, and microwaves? It looked like this:
Photo by Inductiveload, NASA [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
As you can see, the EMS consists of a wide range of wavelengths, frequencies, and photon energies used to classify all the different forms of electromagnetic radiation (EMR). Electromagnetic radiation is one of the four fundamental forces of nature, which also includes gravity, the strong force, and the weak force. These four forces are generally agreed to be the most basic interactions in the universe.
The types of electromagnetic radiation along this spectrum are broadly classified by increasing wavelengths as follows:
- Gamma radiation
- X-ray radiation
- Ultraviolet radiation
- Visible radiation (light detected by the human eye)
- Infrared radiation
- Terahertz radiation ( a non-ionizing form of EMR between IR and microwave that is becoming more studied)
- Microwave radiation
- Radio waves
Ionizing Radiation Verses Non-Ionizing Radiation
EMR can be classified as ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation is at the high-energy end of the EMS and is comprised of energetic subatomic particles, ions or atoms. It carries enough energy to have an effect on atoms or molecules, “ionizing” them by freeing electrons. In other words, it has enough energy to completely remove an electron from an atom or molecule. Examples include Gamma rays, X-rays, and the higher ultraviolet part of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Non-ionizing radiation has only enough energy to “excite” the movement of an electron to a higher energy state. Examples include ultraviolet part of the electromagnetic spectrum, visible light (including nearly all types of laser light), infrared, microwaves, and radio waves.
Basically, this means that both can cause biological effects at the cellular level creating possible alterations in body functions.
The Health Effects of Radiation
There is no controversy that ionizing radiation can cause detrimental health effects such as genetic alterations and cancer, but there is some debate on non-thermal effects of these lower frequencies. According to the National Library of Medicine’s Hazardous Substances Data Bank, “X-radiation and gamma radiation are known to be human carcinogens based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity from studies in humans.”
Non-ionizing radiation, such as the radiofrequency form used in wireless phones, has been classified as possibly carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). I reviewed radiofrequency effects of cell phones previously here. I am convinced enough to take the precautionary route and use methods to mitigate exposure. The remainder of this article will mostly focus on ionizing radiation.
Everyone is exposed to ionizing radiation through our environment (air, water, food, soil) and through sources resulting from mining and use of naturally radioactive materials in power generation, nuclear medicine, consumer products, military and industrial applications. GreenMed Info reports:
Specific sources of ionizing radiation include nuclear fission (e.g. nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons production and testing, nuclear power plants); medical radiation (e.g. X-rays, CT scans, radiation therapy); cosmic radiation (e.g. solar flares, exposure during air travel, etc.); terrestrial radiation (e.g. radon, radium, uranium, thorium, etc.); food irradiation facilities; and release of radioactive elements from various nuclear/irradiation facilities (intentional and unintentional).
The Public Health Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) states the following regarding ionizing radiation (bold emphasis mine):
Ionizing radiation, like heat and light, is a form of energy. It includes particles and rays given off by radioactive material, stars, and high-voltage equipment. Most of it occurs naturally and some is produced by human activities. At very high doses, ionizing radiation can cause illness or death. Any dose could possibly cause cancer, after a several-year delay. It is not known how many of the 1,517 National Priorities List sites identified by the Environmental Protection Agency give off ionizing radiation above background levels…
Expo-sure to high doses of ionizing radiation can result in skin burns, hair loss, nausea, birth defects, illness, and death. How you are affected depends on how much ionizing radiation you received and over what period of time, and personal factors such as sex, age at the time of exposure, and your health and nutritional status.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a combination of the dose and source of radiation accounts for health effects. They report on dosing here. It is estimated that a person is exposed to an average of 2.4 mSv/yr of ionizing radiation from natural sources, but some areas can have doses 5 to 10-times higher.
What this means is that our bodies are equipped to handle some amount of radiation, but many of us are being bombarded by airport scanners, diagnostic imagining, and radioactive elements unintentionally entering our body through our food and water supply. Furthermore, there are also the radiation therapy effects of cancer treatment, which I discuss here.
Can Natural Therapies Cast a Light Through the Shadow of Doom and Radiation Effect Gloom?
The short answer is yes!
There are actually many studies involving different types of nutrients that support your body through various mechanisms. I actually started researching this topic more when I read a wonderful and thorough review of the already mentioned GreenMed Info article. I will summarize some of these and a few other pearls that I found in a follow-up blog.
Berkeley Lab Electromagnetic Spectrum. http://www2.lbl.gov/MicroWorlds/ALSTool/EMSpec/EMSpec2.html. Accessed November 18, 2014.
Wikepedia. Electromagnetic Spectrum. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electromagnetic_spectrum
University of Tennessee. The Fundamental Forces of Nature. http://csep10.phys.utk.edu/astr162/lect/cosmology/forces.html
Georgia State University. Fundamental Forces. HyperPhysics. http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/forces/funfor.html
Wikepedia.Fundamental interaction. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamental_interaction
Hammers L. New Device Converts DC Electric Field to Terahertz Radiation. AIP. August 14, 2015. https://www.aip.org/publishing/journal-highlights/new-device-converts-dc-electric-field-terahertz-radiation
Di Lugilo BE. Tracking & Mitigating Radiation Poisoning from the Inside Out. Green Med Info. August 29, 2015. http://www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/tracking-mitigating-radiation-poisoning-inside-out-1
Wikepedia. Non-Ionizing Radiation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-ionizing_radiation
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Public Health Service Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. ATSDR. Ionizing Radiation. http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxfaqs/tfacts149.pdf
WHO. Ionizing Radiation. What is Ionizing Radiation? http://www.who.int/ionizing_radiation/about/what_is_ir/en/index2.html
IARC. Non-Ionizing Radiation, Part 2: Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields. 2011. http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2011/pdfs/pr208_E.pdf
National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Hazardous Substances Data Bank. Ionizing Radiation. https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/roc/content/profiles/ionizingradiation.pdf
National Cancer Institute. Radiation Therapy for Cancer. http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/types/radiation-therapy/radiation-fact-sheet
Treatments for Brain Cancer Take Heavy Toll on the Brain. Health Day. September 3, 2015. http://consumer.healthday.com/cognitive-health-information-26/brain-health-news-80/treatments-for-brain-cancer-take-heavy-toll-on-the-brain-study-702436.html
Prust, et al. Standard chemoradiation for glioblastoma results in progressive brain volume loss. Neurology. July 24, 2015, doi: http:/?/?dx.?doi.?org/?10.?1212/?WNL.?0000000000001861
Radiation?induced dementia in patients cured of brain metastases. Neurology. June 1989. http://www.neurology.org/content/39/6/789.short
Printz, C. Radiation treatment generates therapy-resistant cancer stem cells from less aggressive breast cancer cells. Cancer. 2012; 118: 3225. doi: 10.1002/cncr.27701