Radiation and Your Health
How are our bodies exposed to harmful radiation?
- By inhaling it - breathing air containing radioactive particles.
- By ingesting it - eating or drinking food or beverages which have been contaminated by radioactivity.
- Through our skin (transdermally) - by coming in direct contact with radioactive material or fallout.
How much is too much?
As we mentioned in our radiation FAQ, the average person receives 6.5 mSv (millisieverts - 1/1000 of a sievert) or less of radiation per year. This amount is generally considered to be safe and have no impact upon our health. However being exposed to a large amount of radiation, especially all at once, can cause severe or even fatal radiation injury or illness. Doses of 0.7 Gy (70 rads) are enough to cause radiation sickness - even as little as 0.3 Gy (30 rads) can cause mild symptoms. Doses of 450 cGy's (centigrays - a centigray = 1/100 of a gray or 1 rad) in a short period of time will be fatal to approximately 1 in every 2 adults.
2 Sv (2000 mSv) of radiation is enough to make your eyes develop cataracts. Long-term skin exposure to 20 or more Sv of radiation is likely to cause chronic dermatitis and skin cancer.
What parts of our body are most susceptible to radiation injury?
Because of the tissue makeup and function of various organs in our bodies, some are more susceptible to radiation than others. In order from the most to least affected:
- Lymphoid organs, such as bone marrow, the small intestine, reproductive organs - suppression of the bone marrow is a very common effect of radiation poisoning.
- Skin, gastrointestinal system, parts of the eye (cornea and lens)
- Growing bones and cartilage, blood vessels
- Lungs, pancreas, liver, kidneys, adrenal glands, pituitary gland, mature bones and cartilage.
- Brain, muscle, spinal cord.
What are the long-term health risks?
- Various forms of cancer have been linked to radiation, including leukemia, lymphoma, thyroid cancer, breast cancer, melanoma, bone cancer, brain tumors, and gastrointestinal tract cancers.
- If your eyes were affected, you may develop cataracts.
- Chronic skin disease (chronic radiodermatitis), if your skin was exposed.
- Exposure to excessive amounts of radiation can cause chromosome damage.
What is Acute Radiation Syndrome?
Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS), also known as radiation sickness or radiation poisoning, is a collection of medical issues caused by a large external dose of penetrating radiation delivered in a short period of time. These are grouped into 3 categories:
- Bone Marrow (hematopoietic) Syndrome - Destruction of bone marrow, resulting in infection and uncontrolled bleeding (hemorrhage.) Hematopoietic syndrome can occur with dosages of 0.3-0.7 Gy or more. This is treatable and often survivable, however the higher the dose, the lower the odds of survival.
- Gastrointestinal (GI) Syndrome - Permanent damage to the gastrointestinal tract begins at radiation doses of 0.6 Gy - 1Gy, resulting in dehydration and infection.
- Cardiovascular (CV) and Central Nervous System (CNS) Syndrome - This occurs when dosages reach 20-50 Gy, and causes collapse of the circulatory system and buildup of pressure within the skull. These patients won't survive more than a couple of days
What are the symptoms of Radiation Poisoning?
Initial symptoms of Acute Radiation Sickness occur within 1 hour to 2 days of exposure and include:
- Anorexia (loss of appetite)
If you experience any of these symptoms following exposure to radiation, it is CRITICAL that you seek medical assistance as soon as you can, even if the symptoms seem to go away!
After radiation poisoning, your symptoms may disappear and you will look and feel fine - even healty. But the radiation is still actively at work in your body, destroying your bone marrow. It can be up to 6 weeks before additional life-threatening symptoms appear. If you had symptoms initially , it is very important to get to a doctor or hospital to be checked out and receive treatment, even if you feel OK.
What is the best way to protect yourself?
- Avoid exposure as best you can. In an emergency, seek shelter in a building, away from doors, windows and air vents.
- Have a nuclear emergency preparedness kit on hand
- In a crisis, follow the directions of public health officials.
- If you have been exposed to Iodine-131 (radioactive iodine), one of the most plentiful components of radioactive fallout, take a dose of potassium iodide within 3-4 hours. This can minimize your risk of developing thyroid cancer / disease.
- Seek prompt medical attention if you have radiation injuries or are showing symptoms of Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS.)