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Radiation Effects:

Radiation Effects ©Health Physics Society


Questions How much radiation does it take to cause a person’s risk for a health effect to increase? What are the health effects that can occur if there is enough exposure? Is there a level of radiation that is safe ?


Answers There are many thoughts on the answers to these questions and suggested answers lie along a continuum, especially when the topic is low-level radiation. Answers range: From “radiation is good for you” (this is the hormesis hypothesis) To “low levels of radiation are safe” (they do not measurably increase your risk of disease) To “any amount of radiation exposure carries some risk” (this is the linear no-threshold hypothesis).


Risk Risk from a radiation dose is typically based on calculations of the “real” effect of the radiation dose that is absorbed. These calculations are based on: The type of radiation. Each type of radiation is different and affects tissues differently. The energy that it leaves in the body. More energy means a higher probability of an effect. Where in the body the energy remains. Radiation exposure to a nonsensitive area of the body (i.e., wrist) really has no actual effect. Radiation exposure to a sensitive area of the body (i.e., blood-forming organs) can have an effect if the amount of energy left is high enough.


Cancer The average natural lifetime incidence of cancer in the United States is 42 percent—42 out of 100 people will get cancer in their lifetime. 1 Diagnostic medical radiation exposures typically will not increase this risk appreciably. Radiation exposure does not create a unique cancer risk situation, nor is the risk directly measurable or distinguishable from the cancer risk caused by other sources (environmental, chemical, biological, etc.). 1 American Cancer Society


Cancer Radiation-induced cancers do not appear until at least 10 years after exposure (for tumors) or 2 years after exposure (for leukemia). The time after exposure until possible cancer formation is called the “latent period.” The risk of cancer after exposure can extend beyond this latent period for the rest of a person’s life for tumors or about 30 years for leukemia.

Cancer Risk Estimates:

Cancer Risk Estimates We lack scientific data to determine a precise risk of cancer in the future from radiation exposure today. We estimate the increase in the cancer incidence rate is about 0.17 percent per rem of radiation dose 1 ; this is based on effects seen at high doses. However, it may be impossible to demonstrate that additional cancers occur at low levels of radiation exposure since the normal incidence rate of cancer is plus or minus some natural variation. 1 International Commission on Radiological Protection, Publication No. 103; 2007.

Cancer Risk Estimates (cont.):

Cancer Risk Estimates (cont.) This means that, of a group of 100 people, it is estimated that about 42 will get a cancer in their lifetime. If we expose each to one rem of radiation, still about 42 will get a cancer in their lifetime. If we expose each to five rem of radiation, we estimate that about 43 will get a cancer in their lifetime. What we cannot tell, though, is whether the estimated one additional cancer is just a natural variation or whether it is due to the radiation exposure.


Justification A medical procedure involving radiation should be done only when there is a question to be answered–is something broken, why the pounding headaches, could there be cancer? This is justification; i.e., there should be an appropriate medical reason for the x ray to be performed. The issue of medical radiation exposure is not only a matter of safety; it’s a matter of benefit compared with risk. For properly performed common medical radiation procedures that are necessary in light of the patient’s medical condition, safety alone is not the issue. ICRP Publication 60; Ann ICRP 21(1-3); 1991

Radiation Doses and Expected Effects:

Radiation Doses and Expected Effects General radiation doses to the entire body and expected effects: 0-5 rem received in a short period or over a long period is safe—we don’t expect observable health effects. 5-10 rem received in a short time or over a long period is safe—we don’t expect observable health effects. At this level, an effect is either nonexistent or too small to observe. 10-50 rem received in a short time or over a long period—we don’t expect observable health effects, although above 10 rem the chances of getting cancer are slightly increased. We may also see short-term blood cell decreases for doses of about 50 rem received in a matter of minutes. 50-100 rem received in a short time will likely cause some observable health effects and received over a long period will increase the chances of getting cancer. Above 50 rem we may see some changes in blood cells, but the blood system quickly recovers.

Radiation Doses and Expected Effects (cont.):

Radiation Doses and Expected Effects (cont.) General radiation doses to the entire body and expected effects: 100-200 rem received in a short time will cause nausea and fatigue. 100-200 rem received over a long period will increase a person’s chances of getting cancer. 200-300 rem received in a short time will cause nausea and vomiting within 24-48 hours. Medical attention should be sought. 300-500 rem received in a short time will cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea within hours. Loss of hair and appetite occurs within a week. Medical attention must be sought for survival; half of the people exposed to radiation at this high level will die if they receive no medical attention. 500-1,200 rem in a short time will likely lead to death within a few days. Greater than 10,000 rem in a short time will lead to death within a few hours.

Commonly Encountered Radiation Doses:

Commonly Encountered Radiation Doses Effective Dose Radiation Source <= 0.01 rem annual dose living at nuclear power plant perimeter; bitewing, panoramic, or full-mouth dental x rays; skull or chest x ray <=0.1 rem single spine x ray; abdominal or pelvic x ray; hip x ray; mammogram <=0.5 rem kidney series of x rays; most barium-related x rays; head CT; any spine x-ray series; annual natural background radiation dose; most nuclear medicine brain, liver, kidney, bone, or lung scans <=1.0 rem barium enema (x rays of the large intestine); chest, abdomen, or pelvic CT <=5.0 rem cardiac catheterization (heart x rays); coronary angiogram (heart x rays); other heart x-ray studies; most nuclear medicine heart scans CT = computerized tomography; a specialized x-ray exam.

Radiation Effects on Embryo/Fetus:

Embryo/fetus is rapidly developing so is more sensitive to a possible radiation effect than an adult. Effects vary with amount of radiation and stage of development of the embryo/fetus. Principal effects are loss of pregnancy, malformations, and mental retardation. 1 Without radiation exposure, risk of spontaneous abortion is 15 percent. Without radiation exposure, risk of genetic disease is 11 percent. Without radiation exposure, risk of major malformation is 3 percent. Without radiation exposure, risk of growth retardation is 3 percent. Malformations are identical to those occurring naturally. More than 10 rem is required to increase the rate of malformations. Radiation Effects on Embryo/Fetus 1 Brent RL. Utilization of developmental basic science principles in the evaluation of reproductive risks from pre- and postconception environmental radiation exposure. Teratology 59:182; 1999.

Cell Sensitivity:

Actively dividing cells are most sensitive to radiation damage. Tissues that are more sensitive include skin, hair, early blood cells, and lining of the intestine. Tissues that are less sensitive include muscle, bone, brain, and connective tissue. Cell Sensitivity

Genetic Effects:

Genetic mutations occur from incorrect repair of damaged chromosomes in egg or sperm cells. Ovaries can repair mild radiation damage. Genetic mutations may show up in future generations. Radiation-caused genetic mutations have been shown in animal studies at very high radiation doses (>25 rem). Radiation-caused genetic mutations have not been seen in exposed human populations. Genetic Effects

The following slides are an explanation of radiation interaction with the body and how an abnormality from ionizing radiation is believed to occur. :

The following slides are an explanation of radiation interaction with the body and how an abnormality from ionizing radiation is believed to occur.

Radiation Damage to Chromosomes:

Radiation Damage to Chromosomes Indirect damage Water molecule is ionized, breaks apart, and forms OH free radical. OH free radical contains an unpaired electron in the outer shell and is highly reactive: Reacts with DNA. 75 percent of radiation-caused DNA damage is due to OH free radical. Direct damage DNA molecule is struck by radiation, ionized, resulting in damage.

Slide 18:

Chromosome Damage Formation of a ring and fragments followed by replication of chromosomes.

Slide 19:

Chromosome Damage Interchange between two chromosomes forms a chromosome with two centromeres and fragment, followed by replication.

What Follows Chromosome Damage?:

What Follows Chromosome Damage? The cell might: Repair mild damage. Have some mild damage that sits inactive until another agent interacts with the same cell. (If it is a reproductive cell like sperm or egg cells) have damage to the genetic code that doesn’t show up until future generations (your children, their children, etc.). Have some damage, causing it to become a cancer. Stop functioning. Be killed.

The following slides show information that is linked from earlier slides.:

The following slides show information that is linked from earlier slides.

Linear No-Threshold Hypothesis (LNT):

Linear No-Threshold Hypothesis (LNT) As early as the 1950s, when scientific groups were creating radiation protection guidelines: No one really knew what the effects of radiation at low doses were or if there were any. It was decided to assume that the radiation dose and the effect of the dose were linear and proportional. This means for a given dose of radiation to a person, that person has some possibility of a radiation effect; if the dose of radiation is doubled, that person has twice the possibility and so on. It was also decided that at any dose, no matter how small, there could be an effect (no threshold). Setting radiation protection standards required “erring” on the “safe” side—setting a standard lower than it may have to be if the real level of hazard were known. This was and still is the basis for the LNT. LNT was intended for scientists to set radiation protection standards and not for general use; because it was easy to use and explain, most people quickly presented it as fact rather than saying we do not know the effects of low doses of radiation or that low doses of radiation are safe.


Hormesis By definition, hormesis is a generally favorable biological response to low exposures to toxins or stressors that would give an unfavorable response at high exposures. Some studies of worker populations, plants, animals, and cells have shown favorable health outcomes at low exposures of radiation as compared to adverse outcomes at high exposures. However, these studies have not been accepted as proof of a hormetic effect from radiation. There are some studies in which the authors report that cells exposed to a small amount of radiation (called a conditioning dose) can actually produce what they refer to as an adaptive response that makes cells more resistant to another dose of radiation. Some potential issues: Many of the results cannot be reproduced (meaning that other scientists have tried to do the same testing and get the same results, but haven’t been able to; this suggests that the initial results might have been just due to chance). Not every type of cell has this capacity for an adaptive response. The adaptive response does not appear to last long (so the second radiation dose would have to occur soon after the conditioning dose).


Glossary diagnostic : In medicine, diagnosis or diagnostics is the process of identifying a medical condition or disease by its signs and symptoms and from the results of various procedures. As used when referring to medical exams involving radiation, it is the use of x rays or radioactive materials to identify the medical condition. exposure : Exposure is commonly used to refer to being around a radiation source; e.g., if a person has a chest x ray, that person is exposed to radiation. By definition, exposure is a measure of the amount of ionizations produced in air by photon radiation. low-level radiation : Low-level radiation refers to radiation doses less than 10 rem to a human body. observable health effect : An observable health effect is a change in physical health that can be detected medically. Observable health effects may include changes in blood cell counts, skin reddening, cataracts, etc. Whether or not it is an observable harmful health effect depends on whether damage to the body has occurred and whether that damage impairs how the body is able to function.


Glossary rem : Rem is the term used to describe equivalent or effective radiation dose. In the International System of Units, the sievert (Sv) describes equivalent or effective radiation dose. One sievert is equal to 100 rem. risk : Risk is defined in most health-related fields as the probability or odds of incurring injury, disease, or death. safe : Safe, as it is being used in the information on this Web site, is defined as an activity that is generally considered acceptable to us. This is not to say there is absolutely no risk with an activity that is considered safe; there may be a risk from the activity or the exposure to radiation, but it is the same or lower than the risks from everyday actions. At a level of radiation that is considered safe, an effect is either nonexistent or too small to observe.