Radiation: Sometimes Scary, Sometimes Not

The electromagnetic force is with you. It surrounds you with its power. Radiating from the sun, it brings you warmth, light, and color. From the center of the earth, it seeps through soil and into water and the air. From radios, computers, and other electronic devices it brings you sights, information, and sounds. Electromagnetic energy, or radiation, fills the environment. Studies have been completed on radiation. Some is vital to your life. Some is harmful.

All electromagnetic energy consists of vibrating electric and magnetic fields that spread out in all directions. Each kind has its own wavelength or frequency that gives it unique properties. You can see, for example, the colors of visible light, and you can feel the heat of infrared radiation. Other rays, such as radio waves and X-rays, cannot be seen or felt.

Non-ionizing radiation, which is emitted as electricity flows, includes microwaves; radar; UHF (ultrahigh frequency) and VHF (very high frequency) television; FM, AM, and shortwave radio; and the radiation in sunlight.

Sunlight or solar energy consists of visible light, which enables plants to make food, and infrared radiation, which warms the earth and sets winds and weather in motion. The sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation colors or burns the skin, and ages it. It is known to cause skin cancer and cataracts in the eye that obscure vision.

High doses of UV radiation have the potential to kill plants and animals. The ozone layer in the upper atmosphere prevents most of this radiation from reaching the earth’s surface. But scientists have identified “holes” in the ozone layer. Discovered in the Antarctic and the Arctic, they seem to be created by chlorofluorocarbons, chemicals used in air conditioners, electrical transformers, and spray cans. As a result, many countries have called for a ban on chlorofluorocarbons to reduce the risks of increased ultraviolet radiation.

Electronic Smog?

Electronic devices emit small doses of radiation that some think may be a potential health hazard.

More research is necessary to establish safe levels of “electronic smog.” In the meantime, with the growing number of computers, power lines, broadcast towers, and electronic devices, non-ionizing radiation increases in the environment.

Ionizing radiation, often referred to as radioactivity or radioactive energy, can be a threat. It is released when an electron is knocked out of the outer shell of an atom and leaves behind a positively charged ion. Your body is constantly exposed to cosmic rays from outer space, and natural radioactivity present in soil, air, water, and food. The odorless gas radon seeps through the ground in certain places and has been known to bring radioactivity into the home.

Small but repeated doses of non-ionizing radiation can disrupt normal cell chemistry, damaging genetic material. It may even cause cancer or birth defects. On the other hand, radioactivity is a valuable tool in medicine. X-rays and computerized tomography (CT scan) use low-level radiation to find tooth decay, bone fractures, tumors, and other abnormalities in the body.


Nuclear weapons release very high doses of radioactivity that can kill plants, animals, and people. When atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, tens of thousands died from severe burns, and from radiation sickness. Increased numbers of miscarriages and birth defects were seen soon after, and, over years, leukemia and other cancers appeared among those exposed to the atomic bombs’ radiation.

In 1986, an accident in the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union killed more than 30 people, destroyed nearby vegatation, and made parts of the area uninhabitable. Winds carried a plume of radioactive fallout around the northern hemispher. The fallout contaminated soil, crops, and the milk and meat of cows that grazed on radioactive grass. The children who were evacuated from Chernobyl — and one day their children — will be watched for signs of illness throughout their lives.

An Ounce of Prevention…

In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and state agencies act as “watchdogs” during the shipment, storage, and disposal of radioactive materials. Safety standards vary, but a high-level radioactive substance — one with a very long half-life (the time it takes for half of the material to break down and become nonradioactive) — must be kept out of the environment for hundreds, even thousands, of years.

Electromagnetic power has played a major role in the development of the wold. Life without it seems unthinkable. Living with this power realistically and intelligently may be its best possible use.


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