How Radiation Isn't Killing You


This just in: According to experts, we are being irradiated by our food, water, air, the sky and even by our computers and smartphones. We are even being irradiated by certain elements stored in our own bones. Aaaagh! The enemy within! Run for your lives! But where? Where can you hide in a radiation soaked universe?

Relax. It’s okay. Contrary to the fuzzy notions many people have about radiation, it’s actually as natural as granola and rarely harmful (and just to make it clear: I am not now and have never been on the payroll of the nuclear industry). To most people the word “radiation” is synonymous with poisonous and deadly. Along with that are images borrowed from the pages of comic books of radiation accidents mutating humans or animals to create super powerful monsters or heroes.

Quiz: Fact or Fiction: Radiation Sickness

It was a bite from a radioactive spider, after all, that turned Peter Parker into the original Spiderman (later the story was retold with a genetically engineered spider, to jive with the latest poorly understood technology). And I think it was a massive dose of gamma radiation that turned Dr. David Banner into the Incredible Hulk and I dimly remember something about radiation and the giant monster Mothra of old Japanese monster movie fame.

But these are all fiction, as is the idea that all radiation is harmful. The reality is that we live in a sea of radiation and have done so for the entire history of life on Earth. And yet here we are.

Outside of science fiction the only thing we have to worry about are large doses of certain kinds of high energy radiation — like ultraviolet light, x-rays, and some of the heavier particles that are flung from the decaying nuclei of radioactive materials. If you wear clothes, hats and sunscreen, you have the first one under control. X-rays are not something we typically encounter outside the highly regulated space of a medical establishment, so we are pretty safe on that count. As for the rest, unless you work around these materials or are an astronaut, they are not something you need to worry about. The typical exposure we get is so small that the potential harm is negligible.

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Larger doses are dangerous, of course because those more powerful forms of radiation can penetrate cells and damage our DNA. I’m not an expert, but I believe that most of the time that just causes a cell to die, which is no big deal to your body overall, since cells die all the time. Sometimes it makes a cell turn cancerous, or alters a gene in a gamete, which can lead to birth defects in the next generation. And that’s bad. But the odds of any of this radiation remaking us into superheroes are about the same as me reproducing the statue of David by taking aim at a block of marble with an AK-47.

So overall, there is not a lot to worry about. Radiation is our milieu.

IMAGE: Daily ultraviolet radiation doses from sunlight vary by latitude and season. Credit: NOAA

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