How Does Radiation Harm You?

With all  that’s going on and the press screaming about radiation and meltdowns, it might help you to learn about the dangers of radiation and why something you can’t see can either help you or kill you.

Think of radiation as though it were a cool breeze blowing around you — except you don’t feel it and it doesn’t go around you, it goes through you in the form of invisible rays and particles so small that a hundred trillion of them could fit on the point of the pointiest needle.   Don’t even think about the size because it’s so small that you can’t even imagine it.

Your body is made up of cells and each cell is made up of genetic material.  Radiation passes through that genetic material and screws it up a little.  A lot of radiation screws it up a lot and a little radiation screws it up a little. 

Cells that multiply quickly are the most easily affected because the messed up DNA gets replicated faster.  This is why your hair falls out if you get radiation exposure or sometimes even radiation treatments for disease.  Your hair follicle cells grow quickly and if the radiation is strong enough, those follicles screw up and the hair falls out.  Cancer cells are dividing more rapidly than normal cells so that’s why radiation can often be an effective way to kill cancer cells.  The trouble sometimes, but not always,come later on down the road.

If your hair falls out from radiation exposure and you get diarrhea and vomiting and peeling skin, odds are that you have radiation sickness.  That means that you have been exposed to way too much radiation that was not medically directed to one area.  Your whole body has been exposed to radioactivity and all of your blood forming cells ( in your bone marrow) and your intestines and all other cells have been badly damaged.  Most people die of radiation sickness.  Some people get hit by so much radiation that they die almost instantly.   This happened in Japan after the atomic bombs were dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It also happened at Chernobyl. 

Okay — so the radiation passes through you and screws up your genetic material and some of the cells change.  Over time the change gets amplified.  You might be exposed to a huge blast of radiation today but not get sick until 20 years from now.  Children and babies get sick the quickest because they are growing rapidly and their cells are replicating at a higher rate than an adult’s cells.   This is also why radiation works really well on some forms or childhood cancers.  The cells in children are dividing so rapidly that the radiation kind of directly targets the cancer cells.  Radiation is usually a friend to sick children, but when it’s a foe it can be a very nasty one — watch out!

If you inhale something radioactive you might get lung cancer years from now — that’s why houses are tested for radon gas.  Radon is a gas emitted from the earth’s underground natural formations of uranium.   In regular situations the gas just drifts away harmlessly like it has for billions of years, but when you live in an area with a lot of radon gas and your house is heavily insulated, the gas builds up in your home and you’ve got yourself a problem.  Back in the old days people didn’t have radon problems unless they worked in uranium mines, but today some homes must be equipped with ventilation ports to vent the gas.   Don’t get panicky about this — some people say that a little radon is good for you and there is some scientific evidence to back that up. 

If you’re worried about radon gas, getyour house tested.  If the results are a little high — just open a window and call a company that knows how to vent radon — it can be expensive but nobody should buy a home without getting a radon test or proven results of a recent radon test.   Most parts of the USA are not bothered by radon gas but the area heading up and around the Appalachian Mountains has an issue with this due to the high levels of uranium deposits deep under the ground there.  This underground uranium deposit is called the “Reading Prong” — click the upcoming link to see if you live near it or other radon areas.  But don’t panic if you do — it means nothing!   Here is that link.

Radiation from a nuclear accident or bomb has two things going on.  You have the gamma rays of radiation that bounce all over the place and in heavy doses will kill you by destroying your cells.  Like I said, it goes through you like an x ray.  You also have what is called “fallout.”  That is the radioactive debris that literally falls down on you after an explosion of radioactive material.  It stays on you and your clothes and your grass and your flowers and emits radiation for years and years.  You can wash it away to some extent, but it will just keep giving off radiation for many years at the spot where it winds up.  In Chernobyl this fallout created what was called a “dead zone.”   The amount of radiation is so high that nothing can live because the fallout keeps giving off radiation.  Eventually the fallout loses it’s potency and everything sort of comes back to life but living things who inhabit a dead zone often are plagued by cancers and other immunological diseases.    This effect can last for years or even centuries because radioactive debris has what is called a “half-life.”   A half-life is the amount of time it takes for certain radioactive elements or compounds to break down into non radioactive stuff.  Some radocative stuff has a long half-life — tens of thousands of years,  and some radioactive stuff only exists for millionths of a second.  The stuff given off by a nuclear power plant usually lasts about 100 years before it is “safe” for humans to go back to the area but in reality it will never really be safe for a long, long time.

In 1979, the movie “The China Syndrome” set the stage for panic for nuclear meltdowns and fallout fears.  We now hear the word “meltdown” and we have a mental meltdown. 

Just weeks after that movie was released, a nuclear power plant in Three Mile Island, Penn., released radioactivity in the air. People fled and worried that officials weren’t telling them about lingering health hazards from the accident.

In truth, the people living in the area were exposed to an average of 6.5 millirems of radiation. We now know that’s meaningless given that every year, all of us absorb about 30 millirems from the ground, 26 from the sun, 10 from just one dental X-ray, 10 from food, and 5 from our own drinking water.

So anyway, radioactivity is all around us all the time, but when it comes in the from of a concentrated wind that goes through us like 10,000 x rays, then we’ve got trouble.  If fallout gets on your skin you can wash it off.  It can be washed away — of course it goes somewhere else, but at least that’s better than staying on you.

Here is a quick example that is a sad but interesting story to tell.

Radium Watches

Back in the days before people knew there was such thing as radiation ( because you can’t see it ) there used to be a watch factory in northern New Jersey.  In one room women painted the numbers on the watch with a paint made of radium ( that’s pretty radioactive stuff ).  The radium made the watch numbers glow a little in the dark so a person could read their watch at night or in a dark room.  It was a great fad.  Anyway, the women who worked in this room and painted these watch numbers often would point the tip of the brush with their tongue and lips like you would do with a regular paint brush.  Nobody though anything of it, but as the years went by, each of these women died from unusual cancers of the head and neck and mouth.  Catch on?

So if there is a nuclear power plant explosion you need to know how much radiation exposure you have recieved.   The USA is prepared for this as are many developed countries. If, however, somebody drops a hundred nukes on the USA, radiation poisoning will be something cockroaches will have to worry about because we’ll all be DEAD.   In the meantime, enjoy your life.

2 thoughts on “How Does Radiation Harm You?

  1. What is interesting about fall out is….okay so it falls all over the place. well, once it gets in your house, lawn and such it continues to emit radiation. So I really don’t understand how people compare that type of radiation to X-rays and such. With X-rays, CT Scans, Cell phones … soon as you remove yourself from the source of radiation you will no longer be receiving radiation. But after a fall out, the debris can and will live with you continously……therefore it isn’t a one time exposure it is a continuatuion exposre that you can never get rid of. Fall out and regular radiation exposure is different. I would compare fallout more to toxic chemicals or something.

  2. Mark, did you bother to read the entire paragraph about fallout or did you just skim through it? Or are you just another pain in the ass looking for an argument.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.