Beta Particles have a negative electrical charge, which are emitted from the nucleus of the atom when it undergoes radioactive decay. Unlike Alpha Particles, Beta Particles are small and fast moving. Some good examples of these particles are hydrogen-3 (tritium) and carbon-14 and strontium-90. Although beta particles have a stronger penetrating power than alpha particles the damage they cause to living tissues and DNA are less significant; due to the fact that the ionization they produce are more spaced out. They could travel farther than alpha particles since they are smaller but a simple layer of clothing or aluminum can stop them. Some beta particles can penetrate the skin and cause burns, yet similar to Alpha Particles it becomes more dangerous when inhaled, or swallowed.
Gamma Rays are weightless packets of energy known as photons. Gamma rays are pure energy in that unlike the alpha and beta particles, gamma rays do not possess mass. Similar to visible light, gamma rays are much higher in energy, and most gamma rays are emitted along with alpha or beta particles during the radioactive decay process.
Unlike the alpha and beta particles, gamma rays penetrate the skin and other items of clothing easily. For instance, in order to stop a gamma rays’ penetrating power, one would have to make use of several inches of dense material similar to lead or a few feet of concrete. Gamma rays penetrate and pass through the human body easily and can cause damage to the tissue and DNA. According to the EPA, Gamma Rays are hazardous to humans.
X-Rays are similar to gamma rays for they are also comprised of photons of pure energy. Although the properties of the x-ray and the gamma ray are similar, they come from different parts of the atom. In short, x-rays come from outside the nucleus while gamma rays come from within the nucleus. X-rays generally have less energy than gamma rays and can be produced either naturally or through the use of electricity.
All types of ionized radiation present a health risk factor by changing cell structures and damaging DNA. However, the amount of damage is contingent on the type of radiation, the energy of the radiation, and the total amount of radiation that is absorbed by the body. Moreover, some cells are more sensitivity to radiation than others. Furthermore, given the fact that exposure to radiation is at the cellular level, it is very difficult to observe such effects right away when they are minimal. On a brighter note the organism repairs most of the damage at the cellular level, but when they are not repaired they could turn into cancerous cells. Hence, according to the EPA the most consequential risk from exposure to radiation is cancer.
According to the EPA the greater the exposure to radiation, the higher the chances are of developing cancer. However, the same amount of radiation exposure does not necessarily have the same effect on two individuals. Some people are more susceptible than others. Moreover, cancer that is caused by radiation is usually not detected until years after the exposure. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) lists leukemia, breast, bladder, colon, liver, lung, esophagus, ovarian, multiple myeloma, and stomach cancers on the list of common cancers derived from exposure to radiation. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has suggested that there is also a link between ionizing radiation and prostrate, nasal cavity/sinuses, pharyngeal and laryngeal, and pancreatic cancers.
Radiation exposure can also bring about damage to the genetic makeup in reproductive cells causing genetic mutations, which will be passed on to future generations. There are dangers of birth defects for embryos or fetuses that are exposed to radiation. If a high level of radiation exposure were to happen, an individual could get seriously sick or die within hours of exposure. Nevertheless, this amount of exposure is rare and happens only in extreme cases.
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Before we could begin to talk about the two kinds of radiation and the effect that it has on humans, it is essential to first define radiation. Radiation, simply put, is energy. This energy comes naturally from unstable atoms or it can also be produced by machines. In short, radiation can travel from its source in either
the form of energy waves or energized particles. The fact that radiation is energy, and given that the source through which this energy is created varies, the types of energy from radiation varies, too. The first kind of radiation is known as ionizing radiation because of its high energy which knocks electrons out of atoms through an ionization process. This kind of radiation can affect the atoms in living things, posing a health risk. This form of radiation has the power to damage tissues and the DNA in genes of living organisms. The other kind of radiation, known as non-ionizing radiation, is less energetic and does not go through the ionization process. Examples of non-ionizing radiation are radio waves, microwaves, and visible light.
Certain elements give of radiation and therefore are described as radioactive. This process is called “radioactivity.” Having mentioned earlier that this radioactivity comes from unstable atoms it is only natural for the atoms to seek to become stable, and as a result of this end up emitting particles and/or energy waves in a process known as radioactive decay. This page will focus on four types of ionizing radiation known as Alpha Particles, Beta Particles, Gamma Rays, and X-Rays; which according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are the major types of ionized radiation emitted during radioactive decay.
Alpha Particles are positively charged particles, which are constructed from two protons and two neutrons that come from the nucleus of the atom. Alpha particles come from the heaviest radioactive decay; examples include uranium, radium and polonium. Although alpha particles are extremely energetic, its heavy weight consumes most of its energy in short distances.
The health risk that is involved in coming into contact with alpha particles depends on how a person is exposed. Considering that alpha particles do not have the necessary energy to penetrate the outer layer of skin, exposure on a surface layer (the outside of the body) is not of much of a concern. However, the risk becomes substantial when alpha particles are either inhaled, swallowed, or enters the body through open wounds. What makes alpha particles more dangerous than the other types of radiation is their size and mass. According to the EPA the ionization they cause are very close together which allows them to release all their energy into a few cells. This will result in a more severe damage to both cells and the DNA.
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