An Overview of Radiation: The Effects Demonstrated by Chernobyl and Three Mile Island

by Jennifer Gough on March 25, 2014

Whether you are aware of it or not, radiation is always present in our environment

This is the "tri-foil" which is the international symbol for radiation. It is used as a warning to protect people from exposure to radioactive materials.

This is the “tri-foil” which is the international symbol for radiation. It is used as a warning to protect people from exposure to radioactive materials.

Radiation is the transmission of energy. It can present itself in different forms and has a variety of sources. Out of these sources, it is most commonly associated with nuclear power plants, where materials used are known to release small amounts of radiation.

Radiation is continuously studied in its relationship with causing health problems. These can include genetic mutations, cancers and birth defects. The effects of radiation on human health are primarily studied in regard to incidents where radiation exposure is known to have occurred. These include the nuclear power plant disasters at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. Additionally, the nuclear bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan have also been studied.

Being aware of the causes of different types of radiation allows you the opportunity to avoid exposure. By avoiding exposure, you can limit the potential health risks you may be susceptible to. Radiation can be present in the form of light or particles that are too small to see. There are two kinds of radiation: ionizing and non-ionizing radiation.

Ionizing radiation is characterized by its ability to remove electrons from molecules; therefore, what remains is an electrically charged particle. Ionizing radiation can be in the form of alpha and beta particles, gamma rays and x-rays. Ionizing radiation also has the ability to destroy chemical bonds, which means that it plays an important role in human health. Ionizing radiation has the ability to cause mutations, which can lead to birth defects.

Non-ionizing radiation is the second type of radiation. It is primarily characterized by being low-frequency radiation. Unlike ionizing radiation, this type of radiation does not have the ability to remove an electron, resulting in a charged ion. This type of radiation is far less damaging to human health than ionizing radiation. Examples of non-ionizing radiation include radio waves, microwaves and infrared radiation.

Sources of Radiation: Man-made and Natural 

Common sources of radiation that cause radiation exposure can be attributed to natural and man-made sources. Natural sources include cosmic radiation and radioactive minerals. Man-made sources include medical applications, nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants.

Natural sources of radiation are also considered “background” sources because they are naturally occurring in the environment. Radon is the largest source of natural radiation. Exposure to radon occurs through inhalation, making it the second leading cause of lung cancer.

This pie chart shows the different sources of radiation, both natural and man-made, and their respective contributions.

This pie chart shows the different sources of radiation, both natural and man-made, and their respective contributions.

Cosmic radiation is another background source of radiation. There is a certain amount of radiation exposure that occurs from outer space. These levels of exposure vary depending on altitude and a layer of atmosphere blocks the majority. Another natural source is radioactive compounds that can be found in soil around the world, such as Iran and Austria. Exposure can occur through drinking water.

Manmade sources of radiation have increased since it is not easily controlled or reduced. This increase has become a concern; creating a focus on the effect that ionizing radiation can have on human health. These can include exposure from medical fields, nuclear weapons, or power plants.

The most exposure from artificial ionizing radiation comes from the exposure to X-rays. Additionally, radioactive isotopes are used in many medical procedures and are also a source of exposure in medical settings. It has been proven that radiation has been a positive contribution to the medical field, but is has also been known to cause health problems.

The use of nuclear weapons has lead to radioactive fallout due to the use of radioactive elements for nuclear fission. There have been health concerns related to the absorption of isotopes into the body. The most significant health threat is the increased incidence of thyroid cancer. Similarly, the release of radioactive emissions from nuclear power plants has lead to opposition in constructing nuclear power plants, although the amount released is usually minimal.

Health Impacts of Ionizing Radiation

The three health impacts of ionizing radiation exposure that I have found to be the most significant are cancer, birth defects and gene/chromosome mutations. There are several different forms of cancer that are associated with radiation exposure. Examples include leukemia, bone cancer, thyroid cancer and lung cancer. Birth defects have been found in individuals who were in utero during the Hiroshima and Nagasaki explosions. There is also a relationship between increased radiation and increased occurrence of mutations. Mutations are most prevalent in individuals who are exposed to radiation due to their occupations, such as medical personnel.

Chernobyl and Three Mile Island

In both of these incidents, disasters occurred at nuclear power plants that resulted in exposure of ionizing radiation. The catastrophe at Chernobyl occurred in 1986, when a reactor experienced a core meltdown. As the reactor continued to burn for several days, a very large dose of radiation was released. The main health impact as a result of this exposure was an increase in the incidence of thyroid cancer.

This photo shows the state of the Chernobyl power plant several days after the reactor melted

This photo shows the state of the Chernobyl power plant several days after the reactor melted.

The incident at Three Mile Island occurred in 1979. This was also an accident occurring after a reactor partially melted. While this incident did not have an immediate effect on health, it did play an important role in increasing the safety of these nuclear power plants.

This photo shows a recent photo of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania

This photo shows a recent photo of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania.

The fallout of these nuclear power plants created a fear of health issues and a distrust in the use of nuclear power. In trying to remedy this, government intervention occurred in order to enforce regulation and proper maintenance to prevent further accidents.

Sources:

http://www.epa.gov/radon/healthrisks.html

http://www.epa.gov/rpdweb00/understand/ionize_nonionize.html

http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/3mile-isle.html#impact

http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Safety-and-Security/Radiation-and-Health/Nuclear-Radiation-and-Health-Effects/

http://www.who.int/ionizing_radiation/about/what_is_ir/en/index2.html

Nadakavukaren, Anne. Our Global Environment: A Health Perspective. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Wakeland Press Inc., 2011. Book.

Images:

http://www.epa.gov/radiation/understand/symbols.html

http://inapcache.boston.com/universal/site_graphics/blogs/bigpicture/chernobyl_25th_anniversary/bp2.jpg

https://pubs.acs.org/cen/environment/88/8810gov1.html

Nadakavukaren, Anne. Our Global Environment: A Health Perspective. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Wakeland Press Inc., 2011. Book.

 

 

 

 


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