The average human being only has the barest of grasps on the effects of radiation. Most people associate the term with nuclear disasters and cancer treatments, both of which are known for the devastating impact they had (and have) on living things. Ionizing radiation — which refers to radioactive particles such as alpha and beta particles, and electromagnetic waves such as gamma or ultraviolet rays — is so-named because it has sufficient energy to detach electrons off of atoms to create ions. It is this alteration that causes such damage in both organic and inorganic materials; let’s take a closer look.
Normally, cells are controlled by the chemical structure of DNA molecules. When ionizing radiation rips the electrons off of atoms and creates ion pairs, the result is extremely chemically reactive; the energy released is enough to disrupt molecular bonds, and strands of DNA are broken. In cases where the human body is exposed to large doses of ionizing radiation — like in the control room of the Chernobyl power plant –, the intense effects are referred to as radiation sickness or radiation poisoning: lower levels cause nausea, vomiting, fever, and fatigue, while higher levels can lead to blood cell death and radiodermatitis. If you receive immediate treatment (which involves antibiotics and blood transfusions), you should be able to recover.
Long-term exposure to lower doses doesn’t necessarily have immediate effects, but that doesn’t mean your body isn’t undergoing changes — those DNA strands may repair themselves, but not fully. Your likelihood of developing cancer or tumors increases rapidly as your cells mutate and pass on those mutations to future cells. Both outcomes are horrendous in their own right.
Visits to the famous Chernobyl site and its nearby town of Pripyat are notoriously spooky; you can truly tell that an entire populated area was forced to pick up and go with no warning or preparation. The state of the items left behind is peculiar as they have undergone changes caused by more than simple neglect. Although these materials are not living, their electronic and chemical structures are still affected by ionizing radiation:
- Metals: Exposure to radiation can result in radiation hardening; just as extreme dryness (humidity below 15%) can cause documents to become embrittled, radiation hardening can lower a metal’s toughness, allowing brittle fractures to occur. As atoms are knocked out of their lattice sites, defects, dislocations, and stress corrosion occur in metal objects and structures of all kinds.
- Concrete: Although concrete plays a role in containing radiation, it is not immune to it. Nuclear exposure will lead to a loss of mechanical properties due to the swelling of the concrete aggregates; the longer concrete structures are exposed to high levels of radiation, the more at risk they are of collapse.
Many people fail to consider the fact that we, as living things, are exposed to radiation year-round in the form of UV rays. Just as a sunburn reddens and irritates our skin, the powerful rays can also have an effect on our belongings; if you leave that nice leather couch out in a sunny spot, you’ll notice it start to deteriorate at a much faster rate — regardless of your six-month conditioning routine.
That being said, not all radiation has the ability to change the basic structure of organic and inorganic materials — meaning not all of it is harmful. Certain radioactive materials (such as radioisotopes) are actually used in medicine as a safe way to track the progress of a drug in the human system; this is called radiolabeling. As a radioactive isotope of the element hydrogen, tritium (which has a half-life of 12.5 years) is often used for such purposes. As long as we are aware of our exposure levels, radiation is an innocuous phenomenon.