Ionizing Radiation and Health

Radiation & Health

Red, blue and yellow light are low energy forms of radiation. Ionizing radiation, however, damages health because of its very high energy. In delicate living cells, ionizing radiation damages molecules by knocking electrons out of their atomic orbits. Usually–but not always–cells repair this damage quickly. Un-repaired damage may be minor or it may lead to cancer, other disease or a genetic mutation passed from parent to child.

Alpha radiation is emitted, for example, by plutonium, uranium and radon gas. It cannot penetrate the skin, but once allowed into the body by breathing, eating or through a wound, its huge energy release is very damaging to cells. Most of us have traces of plutonium from open-air nuclear weapons tests in our bodies (mainly in our bones).

Plutonium’s Long Life
Plutonium-239 from nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere, contaminates our environment and remains radioactive for ~250,000 years. It is estimated that there will be 250,000 to 500,000 fatal cancers in the next 100 years caused by radiation doses from testing received before the year 2000. Over longer time periods, from one to two and a half million cancer deaths are expected.¹

Like the smoking-to-cancer link, we know that radiation from weapons tests causes cancer–but we have difficulty separating those cancers from cancers from other causes. We do know, however, that governments and business will sacrifice public health for technology. We must demand a voice in and a veto over policy decisions where our health is at risk.

Alpha, Beta, X-ray & GammaTritium, a form of hydrogen, is a source of beta radiation. Tritium creates a health risk by replacing normal hydrogen atoms in organic molecules or in water molecules within our bodies (~85% water). Tritiated water in the body irradiates organs and, through the placenta, unborn babies. Tritium gas, used in industry and nuclear weapons, also moves widely in the environment. Beta radiation can burn the skin and cause skin cancer.

Other important beta emitters are Iodine-131, Americium (from plutonium decay) and Strontium-90. Strontium-90 is water-soluble and enters the food chain through plants. In the body it concentrates in bone where beta radiation can kill blood-forming cells in bone marrow as well as increase cancer risk.

X-rays and gamma rays are high energy photons that penetrate the body and set in motion cell damaging electrons.  Cesium-137 is a gamma emitter that remains in the environment for long periods of time. Once in the body, it accumulates in muscle where, on average, it irradiates tissue with gamma rays for about two years before being eliminated.

High dose radiation is used to kill cancer cells while lower dose x-rays are valuable for diagnosis. Both can initiate cancer. X-rays, are also now seen to play a central role in obstructive heart disease, whose mechanism, like cancer, is thought to be caused by the incremental accumulation of cell damage. Physicians and radiologists are beginning to take x-ray exposure risk seriously by upgrading equipment and minimizing exposure. Mammogram doses, for instance, have dropped well over 10-fold in recent years.

Low Level Radiation
To insure the survival of nuclear weapons programs and nuclear power, pro-nuclear governments do not acknowledge that human studies prove beyond reasonable doubt that low level radiation damages human health.²

Officials often tell us that radiation from routine releases or accidents at nuclear power plants are too low to hurt anybody, and that studies have found no problems. We know, however, that there is no safe dose of radiation and we know that when officials claim that no study has found a problem, it is often because no study was done.

Officials often hide radiation-related health data behind claims of national security. Government, however, has no right to hide health data from those who may be its victims. Similarly, officials often say accidental releases of radiation are harmless because they are small compared to natural background radiation. However, ionizing radiation from all sources, natural or man-made, carries risk of cancer and other illnesses.

To improve health we must work to:

  • reduce diagnostic x-ray dose
  • reduce weapons programs
  • replace nuclear power with alternative energy systems

Man-made Sources

• Diagnostic medical X-rays are the main source of radiation exposure for people in many countries.  Although new machines have cut the dose they use significantly, that dose still can and does cause some cancers. There is no completely safe dose of radiation, no matter how small.

• Nuclear power plants emit radiation during normal operations as do their dangerous wastes. Currently, there is no plan or location for disposal of radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. Accidents, like Fukushima and Three Mile Island produce radiation, and when plants close, equipment and many buildings are radioactive and become waste themselves.

Coal fired plants, in addition to other noxious emissions, can release more radiation during normal operations than nuclear plants do.

Building and testing nuclear weapons has created an enormous amount of nuclear waste and  contaminated much of the Earth’s water and land with man-made radioactivity. The only nuclear weapons waste disposal site, WIPP, has recently contaminated workers and released radioactivity to the environment.

Nuclear transportation irradiates the nuclear truck driver, and also anyone else driving or standing within about 10 feet of the nuclear load.  The people who receive the highest lifetime dose, however, are not the nuclear drivers, but people who work at truck stops and gas stations where the nuclear trucks stop for gas and refreshment. That dose can be many times higher that that allowed for nuclear workers. A simple solution would virtually eliminate this dose–have a secure parking area and gas pump away from the public. The Department of Energy (DOE), however, continues to refuse this option.

Airport scanning Backscatter scanners employ the same ionizing radiation used in medicine. How often you are scanned increases the total amount of ionizing radiation received. The public health effects of this experiment on millions of people, are still unknown, but the European Union has banned backscatter x-ray scanners. They use nonionizing microwaves instead. Some airports in the US are also switching to microwave scanning.

Natural Sources
• Cosmic rays  (at sea level) ~26 millirem (mrem)/year
Uranium, thorium (soil) ~30 mrem/year
Potassium-40  (natural and in our bones) and lead, polonium &  uranium-239 from radioactive decay ~30 mrem

These sources total about 100 mrem/year. Add to this for increased exposure at high altitudes, radon gas, and man-made radiation sources. Life forms flourished on Earth only after atmospheric ozone was present to protect the fragile chemical bonds in living molecules from high energy cosmic radiation. Cells would not have repair mechanisms if radiation were harmless, but repair mechanisms do not always work. If they did, radiation would not cause cancer. We increase the level of man-made radiation at our own and our descendants’ peril.  All doses count and all doses add up–whether the source is natural or man-made.

Heart Disease
Ionizing radiation is a proven cause of cancer. However a major US study indicates it also plays a central role in heart disease. The mechanism may involve radiation-induced mutations that initiate mini-tumors on the inner surfaces of the heart’s arteries (3)

The Immune SystemThe organs of the immune system produce cells that protect against disease and infection. Radiation can reduce production of these cells. For example, if particles of plutonium lodge close to bone marrow, the immune system may be damaged. Many thousands of people suffered immune system damage after the accident at Chernobyl.

Below is a partial list of health problems in western Russia, Belarus and Ukraine that increased in the public and the 600,000 clean-up workers in the five years after Chernobyl.³

  • Abnormalities of the sexual organs and sexual function in clean-up workers
  • Allergies–anemia (x 7 in parts of Belarus)
  • Birth defects (human and other species)
  • Cancers of the breast, larynx, mouth, thyroid gland
  • Chromosome injuries (unprepared)
  • Endocrine system changes–tuberculosis
  • Thyroid gland (enlargement and unusual problems)
  • Slow weight-gain in children
  • Fatigue–frequent fevers–hair loss
  • Headaches–heart diseases–high blood pressure
  • Immune system weakening (the Chernobyl ‘AIDS’)
  • Incurable skin diseases–cataracts
  • Leukemia–liver diseases–lung diseases
  • Early death in clean-up workers (7000 by 1991)
  • Slow recovery from illness and surgery

The Family: You, Your Children, Your Grandchildren and . . .
Ionizing radiation can cause mutations in the complex genetic molecule (DNA) passed from parent to child. DNA is the ‘blueprint’ for making hundreds of different proteins (enzymes, antibodies and hormones, for instance). Some of these mutations cause the diseases and disorders that run in families, such as heart disease, diabetes, epilepsy, mental, learning and emotional disorders. All of us carry inherited mutations and possibly new ones caused by damage from a mutagen such as natural or man-made radiation. If the new mutation is a sex cell that ultimately produces a new child, then each cell in the child will contain the new mutation plus those it inherited. The younger a person, beginning with conception, the greater the risk of damage from radiation because the cells of embryos and children divide more frequently than do adult body cells. The grim list of radiation dangers to the unborn include death before birth, low birth weight, mental retardation and major or minor congenital deformities.

To produce weapons and power plant fuel, workers are exposed to alpha radiation from the radon gas produced by uranium. As a result, they (miners especially) suffer high rates of lung cancer.

We now know that breast cancer can result from exposure to radiation in childhood. Some breast cancers show up quite soon after exposure, but most are not seen for one to several decades.

Bone cancer, leukemia and other blood diseases can result from exposure to Strontium-90, a radioactive contaminant from power plant accidents and other sources. Once in the body, Strontium-90 stays for life.

Thyroid Diseases
Radio-iodine escaped at the Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986) power plant accidents. Once in the body (from air, food or water), radio-iodine concentrates in the thyroid gland where it increases cancer risk and destroys cells that produce the hormone thyroxin (which requires iodine). Insufficient thyroxin slows a child’s growth, slows healing, slows brain function, reduces sexual drive and causes anemia as well as a multitude of other problems. Potentially in Belarus and Ukraine, millions of people were at risk of reduced production of thyroxin hormone if they drank a liter of milk per day from cows eating grass contaminated with radio-iodine from Chernobyl.


This Information and the Russian-US Project
This information is part of a Russian-American nuclear safety project made possible by the Initiative for Social Action and Reform, in Eurasia (ISAR), a non-governmental organization working with environmental and social justice groups in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakstan, and Azerbaijan.

The project partners are Natalia Manzurova, a radiation biologist who worked for 15 years in the Soviet weapons complex and at the Chernobyl ‘clean-up’ and Cathie Sullivan, an activist for 20 years in US nuclear technology issues.

The current project began in May 2002 when the partners first met and discovered a mutual interest in radiation health issues, during the Russian ISAR program, Women in Nuclear Safety Activism.

This post was written by Cathie Sullivan and updated by Cathie Sullivan and Deborah Reade


¹”Estimated Doses & Fatal Cancers from Nuclear Testing.” Science for Democratic Action, V. 4, #2, page 9. (Institute for Energy and Environmental Research [IEER), Washington, D.C.

² Gofman, John W., 1990, Radiation-Induced Cancer from Low Dose Exposure, Committee for Nuclear Responsibility, San Francisco. Chapters 18, 19, 20, 21

³ (a) Gofman, John W., 1991 fall newsletter, Committee for Nuclear Responsibility (IEER), San Francisco. (b) Medvedev, Z., 1992 The Legacy of Chernobyl, New York, Chapters 4, 5, 6


Ionizing Radiation and Health — 1 Comment

  1. Although I’m not from New Mexico, I’d like to thank you for this website. It’s very informative & I find your intentions and even the name given it to be inspiring.


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