Radiation Effects and Sources

Radiation Effects and Sources

What is Radiation? What does Radiation do to us? Where does Radiation come from? You do not have access to this content

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12 Sep 2016
9789210599597 (PDF)

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This publication is based on the major scientific reports of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) published in the last 25 years and aims to expand public knowledge on levels of exposure to ionizing radiation and possible associated effects. This publication does not set, or even recommend, radiation safety standards, rather, it provides information on basic science related to radiation (origin, quantities and units), on radiation effects (on humans and the environment) and on radiation sources (natural and artificial). Helping the public understand what radiation is and how it affects life on this planet lies within the core mandate of UNEP.

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  • Acknowledgements

    This booklet is largely based on the findings of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation and on the United Nations Environment Programme publication Radiation: doses, effects, risks, initially edited in 1985 and 1991 by Geoffrey Lean.

  • Foreword

    Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima-Daiichi: these names have become associated with the public’s fear of radiation, either from use of nuclear weapons or accidents at nuclear power plants. In fact, people are much more exposed daily to radiation from many other sources, including the atmosphere and the Earth as well as from applications used in medicine and industry.

  • Introduction

    Before we begin, we need to distinguish between ionizing and nonionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation has enough energy to liberate electrons from an atom, thereby leaving the atom charged, whereas non-ionizing radiation, such as radio waves, visible light or ultra-violet radiation, does not. This publication is about the effects of radiation exposure from both natural and artificial sources. However, the word radiation, throughout, refers only to ionizing radiation.

  • What is Radiation?

    To be able to talk about the levels, effects and risks of radiation exposure, we first need to address some basics of radiation science. Both radioactivity and the radiation it produces existed on Earth long before life emerged. In fact, they have been present in space since the beginning of the universe and radioactive material was part of the Earth at its very formation. But humanity first discovered this elemental, universal phenomenon only in the last years of the nineteenth century and we are still learning new ways of using it.

  • What does Radiation do to us?

    Before going into more detail about the effects of radiation exposure, we should recall the pioneers in radiation science introduced earlier. Soon after Henri Becquerel’s discovery, he himself experienced the most troublesome drawback of radiation—the effect it can have on living tissues. A vial of radium that he had put in his pocket damaged his skin.

  • Where does Radiation come from?

    We are continuously exposed to radiation from many sources. All species on Earth have existed and evolved in environments where they have been exposed to radiation from the natural background. More recently, humans and other organisms have also been exposed to artificial sources developed over the past century or so. Over 80 per cent of our exposure is from natural sources and only 20 per cent is humanmade from artificial sources—mainly from radiation applications used in medicine. Radiation exposure is categorized in this publication by its sources, with a focus on what the general public receive. For regulatory purposes (e.g. radiation protection) radiation exposure is addressed for different groups. Therefore, additional information is provided here on patients—who are exposed due to medical use of radiation—and on people exposed at workplaces.

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