When the topic of radiation comes to mind, most people jump to the whole “mutated people” and “Godzilla-destroying-Tokyo” thing. Maybe that’s because most people don’t exactly know what radioactivity is, or perhaps what it isn’t, (which is perfectly fine) it’s a hard subject to master, or even just understand at all.
It’s important to get something out of the way first, though. There is a big difference between the very low amounts of radiation we interact with every day, and the nuclear radioactivity you may have heard about in the Nuclear reactor meltdowns in Fukushima, Japan and Chernobyl, Ukraine. Our key word and difference being “nuclear.” There’s quite a bit of misconception that any and all radiation is bad, which can be understandable. Most of what’s seen in media and in the movies is the crazy, dangerous nuclear radiation.
However, the basics are simple enough, (and surprisingly enough, not scary at all) and to jump right into things, radioactivity is the result of too many neutrons or protons in a single atom, making it unstable.
There are three different types of radiation: alpha, beta, and gamma. All of those words might sound familiar from movies or television, but you may never have known what they were. Well:
Alpha Particles are radioactive or unstable atoms that emit streams positively charged (p+) particles.
Beta Particles are radioactive or unstable atoms that emit negatively charged (e¯) particles.
Gamma, unlike the first two types, do not consist of particles, but are high energy radiation emissions, similar to that of an X-Ray.
(Introductory Chemistry, 2014, pg. 527)
Different Kinds of Radiation
Each form of radiation differs in strength, not all of them will kill you or cause you to turn into one of the monsters from The Hills Have Eyes (thank God). In fact, for the most part, radiation can only harm you if you are regularly exposed to it over long periods of time.
Alpha particles are roughly 2,000 times bigger than a beta particle (Pacchioli, 2013). Which, is a good thing because the bigger the particle is, the slower it moves and can’t penetrate your skin like a beta particle or gamma ray can.
Beta particles are a neutron turning into a proton (Pacchioli, 2013). If we have a neutron that turns into a proton, that means we have an unstable atom. Hence why it is radioactive. Beta particles are smaller and faster, so they penetrate further than alpha particles.
Gamma is the strongest form of radiation and it’s the kind that is used in x-rays. Which, as shown in the picture below, is why you wear that heavy lead apron at the dentist for x-rays. Gamma rays can penetrate your body, but they can’t penetrate lead. Gamma occurs during beta decay, and unlike alpha and beta particles, gamma is pure energy on the electromagnetic spectrum (Pacchioli, 2013).
In a sense, any element can be radioactive, but there are elements that are radioactive by nature. A few of them roll right off the tongue: Radium, Plutonium, and Uranium. Of course there are man made radioactive elements, but we don’t have to focus on those right now. Radiation can appear just about everywhere, there are even some foods that emit minute amounts of radiation! It’s no surprise, however, that things like CT and MRI scanners, as well as X-rays emit radiation, and even your cellphone and wi-fi router emit radiation.
Radiation in Your Everyday Life
Okay, wait, cellphones emit radiation? Throw them all away get rid of them, we’re all going to die, this is four alarm emergency, round up all the iPhones and Galaxies and get rid of them. Fine, I’ll calm down, that won’t happen, no one’s going to die.
Anyway, yes! Your cellphone can emit radiation! Don’t worry, though, the radiation is so weak that it doesn’t have an effect on your health. Cellphones emit non ionizing radiation, and in a study done by the Journal of the American Medical Association, when on a phone call, the radiation can actually increase brain function. The study conducted demonstrated via PET scan, that when your cellphone is stagnant (not playing a video, receiving a call, etc.) there was little to no change in brain activity. However, when the cellphone was playing a message, with the sound on mute so the patient had no way of hearing the message being played back, there was an increase in brain activity! A conclusion was made that the radiation had not come from the heat of the phone, but instead from the antenna of the phone (Science and Children, 2011).
Radiation in Academia
Everything “gets discovered” at some point or another right? Science is just one discovery after another, that’s all that goes on around here! All we do is learn new stuff! Well, Polish chemist and physicist, Marie Curie, and her husband, Pierre discovered radiation in 1903, for which they received the Nobel Prize in Physics. Pierre exposed himself to the new element they discovered, Radium, and gathered that it could be used to help treat cancer and lupus (N.A., 2014). Along with Radium, Marie also discovered an element called Polonium. Interestingly enough, Marie Curie actually died doing what she loved! Curie died of radiation poisoning, but this only happened because she exposed herself to it often enough for it to have a lasting effect on her body and overall health.
Marie and Pierre Curie’s discoveries paved the path for radiation therapy and chemotherapy in cancer treatments. In chemotherapy the radiation is used to burn and kill the cancer cells until there are none left. This type of radiation is called photon radiation and is found in elements likes cobalt and cesium (Types of Radiation used to Treat Cancer, 2006).
Radiation also appears when you break a bone or tear a ligament. You may be wondering what does radiation have to do with breaking a bone, well to find out if a bone is broken we use X-rays (unless, of course, the break is so severe that it’s sticking out of your skin because…well we don’t really need an X-ray to tell us that your bone is broken). X-rays emit high-powered radiation rays that can penetrate your body to produce pictures that we see as our bones or ligaments (Mercuri, 2011). This is why people are required to wear that special cloth made of lead (you know, the heavy one that never really sits right, so you have to awkwardly hold it up) and these rays can’t pass them, preventing us from developing any kind of radiation poisoning.
After all this, if we haven’t been able to make learning this very clear, or you would just like a condensed, four minute version of radiation and radioactivity, here’s a video that I think would do some justice:
- Pacchioli, D. (2013). ABCs of radioactivity: a long and winding road to achieve stability. Oceanus, 50(1), 10+.
- Corwin, C. H. (2014). Introductory Chemistry: Concepts and Critical Thinking. Pearson.
- Volkow, (2011, April-May). Cell Phone Radiation. Science and Children, 48(8), 10.
- Mercuri, M., Sheth, T., & Natarajan, M. K. (2011, March 8). Radiation exposure from medical imaging: a silent harm? CMAJ: Canadian Medical Association Journal, 183(4), 413+.
- “Marie Curie.” Scientists: Their Lives and Works, UXL, 2006. Science in Context
- Types of Radiation used to Treat Cancer. (2014, October 27). Retrieved December 05, 2016, from http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/treatmenttypes/radiation/radiationtherapyprinciples/radiation-therapy-principles-types-of-radiation