Radiation: The Sensation That Swept the Nation

by Stephanie Neville on February 19, 2014

Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen, a German physicist, discovered radiation in 1895. Its discovery was difficult to ignore as it revolutionized medical sciences and revamped our knowledge of energy. Just months after Roentgen’s discovery, the field of radioactivity was discovered and transformed a range of studies besides physics such as biology, medicine and warfare. Radiation quickly spread as both a diagnostic as well as a therapeutic tool. Several physicians, enthusiastic to make more advances, instantly grasped the new discovery.  Soon, the hazards of radiation became clear when several cases began to report severe defects.

The First X-Ray, The hand of Roentgen’s Wife.

In the early 1900‘s, radiation seemed like an all curing practice and was thought to be an appropriate treatment for everything from high blood pressure to leukemia and even sexual dysfunction. Before the effects of radiation were realized, several scientists and physicians experimented freely without knowing the harm ionizing radiation was having on their bodies. Emil Grubbe, an American physician was one of the first cases of X-ray induced illness. Just weeks after experimenting with radiation, he began to have skin irritation on his hands, and later cancer developed leading his arm to be amputated. Another famous case was Thomas Edison’s assistant, Clarence Dally. Dally continued working with radiation after he noticed burns and hair loss, he then experienced ulcers and cancerous sores on his hands and had both arms amputated as well. Soon it was realized that exposure to the misguided practice of radiation was the cause of anemia and cancers and had a slew of detrimental effects on our bodies and the environment.

Today, over a hundred years after the discovery of radiation, the effects are much more recognized and understood. All exposure to ionizing radiation can be potentially harmful, however the degree of harm depends on the type of radiation one is exposed to. Different types of emissions are Alpha and Beta particles, Gamma rays and X-rays. Alpha particles are harmful when inhaled, ingested, or taken in through a wound and will cause damage to that area. However, this type of radiation is easily blocked by barriers such as skin or clothing. Beta particles are also most dangerous when ingested but can pass through skin where they can concentrate and emit radiation and can increase the risk of cancer. Gamma Rays and X-rays are the most penetrating form of radiation and a dense material such as lead is needed to block it from harming organs and different degrees of exposure to any of these forms can be harmful.

High levels of radiation can result in symptoms such as seizures, cancer and death. Low levels can induce mutations, congenital abnormalities, vomiting and hair loss. There is a direct relationship between radiation and gene mutations. People working with radiation such as  nuclear power plant workers and radiotherapy technicians and nurses show a higher frequency of mutations in their chromosomes. From a genetic stand point, people are often most concerned with radiation exposure to sex cells because many mutations are recessive and exposure to a fetus could have detrimental effects such as death within the first ten days of development. Yet another major radiation induced defect was found among early radiologists, who all formed types of cancers and today it is often associated with forms of cancer such as leukemia, bone cancer and thyroid cancer.

Though radiation has provided modern science with so many advances, there have been many large scale disasters which can cause one to wonder if the benefits outweigh the risks. Humans have evolved the uses of radiation from its natural source, radon, to medical applications such as diagnostic and therapeutic purposes, as well as nuclear weapons and power plants. Atomic bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the only instances of nuclear weapons in wartime. However, the radiation effects are considerably more complex and varied than are the blast or thermal effects of these bombs. There are a wide range of biological changes that follow the exposure, ranging from death after high doses of penetrating radiation to a seemingly normal life for a period of time until the delayed development of radiation arises. Many people within three miles of the blast site who survived later died from radiation exposure. Around 1,900 cancer deaths can be attributed to the after effects of the bombs. The  consequences do not end there though. Teratogenic effects on fetuses are prominent among women who were heavily exposed, resulting in birth deformities and mutations as well as stillbirths. Radiation also has environmental effects. Just a half hour after the Hiroshima bomb set off, “black rain”, began to precipitate and stained anything it fell on. This rain carried the radio active fallout and spread it into areas past Hiroshima and contaminated the water.

Nuclear reactor accidents are also part of the dangers of using nuclear  radiation and power. Of most concern, were the events that took place at the Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and Chernobyl. More serious was the Chernobyl accident. There were over thirty direct deaths and strong evidence of children in the area developing thyroid cancer. Over a staggering 200,000 people experienced and continue to experience the after effects of the nuclear catastrophe which manifests itself as cancers in the longterm.

Being exposed to too much radiation can be harmful, if not lethal. Events such as  Chernobyl, Fukushima explosions, and the testing sites at Bikini and Enewetak atolls in the Central Pacific make us realize the harmful effects and lead us to wonder if the benefits outweigh the costs. On the other hand, without radiation, we wouldn’t get to soak up the sun’s rays or spot a liver lesion. Though radiation clearly has many potential risks, it also provides many advantages and is useful in several fields such as medical diagnostics, oil drilling and treatment of cancers. Additionally in agriculture, it is used to increase crop production of grain because these crops are labeled with radioactive isotopes to increase their growth and in the environment, it is used to measure pollutants in the water that are radioactive tracers. It is important to remember that in the midst of all the shortcomings of radiation, it enhances our way of life and has the potential to do more good than bad.

1.) Nadakavukaren, A. (2011). Our global environment: A health perspective. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

2.) “Benefits of Radiation – Radiation-The Good and the Bad.” Benefits of Radiation – Radiation-The Good and the Bad. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Feb. 2014. https://sites.google.com/site/radiathink/benefits-of-radiation

3.) http://www.johnstonsarchive.net/nuclear/radevents/radaccidents.html

4.) http://mrmackenzie.co.uk/2010/11/x-rays/

5.) http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Safety-and-Security/Safety-of-Plants/Chernobyl-Accident/

6.) http://www.slac.stanford.edu/pubs/beamline/25/2/25-2-assmus.pdf

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