Kill or Cure?
With recent radiation traces from the stricken Japanese nuclear reactors, in Fukushima, being found as far away as California and Scotland, people are beginning to wonder how to safeguard themselves from irradiation.
Supplies of sea salt have almost run out from shops in neighboring Korea. Sea salt contains iodine and is what some consumers believe will help to protect them against thyroid cancer. Thyroid cancer was one of the biggest health concerns after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. However, experts have warned that the amount of iodine found in sea salt or in seaweed is not enough to protect against serious radiation contamination.
But with all the recent talk of radiation, what do we really know about it?
If radiation is so dangerous, how come we use it to treat the sick?
Ionizing radiation, the dangerous type, can penetrate matter. Unlike radiation, say, from the sun, which can’t penetrate into your body, ionizing radiation can pass through into organs and has sufficient energy to change the structure of atoms within our bodies. The reason we can use radiation in the treatment of cancer patients is that the radiation used is usually focused on a relatively small and localized area for a short period of time. The aim is to kill the cancer cells and leave the healthy ones alone.
Did you know…?
The international hazard symbol for radiation first appeared in 1946 at the University of California, Berkeley, Radiation Laboratory. Although, it didn’t look quite the same as it does now. The magenta/blue colors were replaced with the black/yellow to make it stand out more and alert people to the danger
However, in 2007, the International Atomic Energy Agency created a new radiation hazard symbol as it was felt that not everyone understood the severity of the sign. Some school children thought it was a harmless propeller symbol. This new red/black symbol has been tested on various age and gender groups within different countries and seems to be understood by people from varied educational backgrounds.
Radiation is all around us:
We’ve grown up on a planet that has an enormous amount of background radiation that occurs quite naturally. Our bodies have evolved to deal with this radiation. A lot of it comes from radon gas found in the earth and rock in the landscapes around us. The radiation dose that we get from food, drink, cosmic rays and the amounts we get from medical or nuclear power sources are minute.
FACT: Our atmosphere provides great protection from cosmic rays but you get much higher doses if you fly.. and the higher you fly, the more you get.
Where else is radiation used?
- Smoke alarms use a very weak form of radiation to ionize the air surrounding them. The ionized air conducts electricity, creating a small electrical current, but when smoke enters the alarm it absorbs the alpha particles and the current is reduced, triggering the alarm sound.
- Paper mills measure how much radiation can pass through a sheet of paper to determine its thickness. A Geiger counter measures the radiation and controls the pressure of rollers to adjust the thickness required.
- Radiation can also be used to sterilize objects and is used to kill bacteria, mold and insects after food has been packaged. Gamma rays are especially useful in hospitals to sterilize instruments such as plastic syringes that would be damaged by heat sterilization.