Radioactive Pollution

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Radioactive Pollution

Types of radiation

Sources of radioactive pollution

Lifestyle and radiation dose

Nuclear weapons testing

Nuclear power plants

Biological effects of radioactivity


Certain atoms are radioactive, meaning that they emit radioactivity during spontaneous transformation from an unstable isotope to a more stable one. Radioactive pollution results from contamination of the environment with such substances, and may represent a significant health risk to humans and other organisms. Radioactive pollution differs from much conventional pollution in that it cannot be detoxified or broken down into harmless substances. Instead, radioactive materials must be isolated from the environment until their radiation level has decreased to a safe level, a process which requires thousands of years for some materials. A third class of pollutants, toxic stable elements such as lead and mercury, never cease to be toxic. The only cleanup approach for these pollutants is to isolate them as completely as possible.

Types of radiation

Radiation is classified as being ionizing or nonionizing. Both types can be harmful to humans and other organisms.

Nonionizing radiation

Nonionizing radiation is relatively long-wavelength electromagnetic radiation, such as radiowaves, microwaves, visible radiation, ultraviolet radiation, and very low-energy electromagnetic fields. Nonionizing radiation is generally considered less dangerous than ionizing radiation. However, some forms of nonionizing radiation, such as ultraviolet, can damage biological molecules and cause health problems. Scientists do not yet fully understand the longer-term health effects of some forms of nonionizing radiation, such as that from very low-level electromagnetic fields (e.g., high-voltage power lines), although the evidence to date suggests that the risks are extremely small.

Ionizing radiation

Ionizing radiation is the short wavelength radiation or particulate radiation emitted by certain unstable isotopes during radioactive decay. There are about 70 radioactive isotopes, all of which emit some form of ionizing radiation as they decay from one isotope to another. A radioactive isotope typically decays through a series of other isotopes until it reaches a stable one. As indicated by its name, ionizing radiation can ionize the atoms or molecules with which it interacts. In other words, ionizing radiation can cause other atoms to release their electrons. These free electrons can damage many biochemicals, such as proteins, lipids, and nucleic acids (including DNA). If intense, this damage can cause severe human health problems, including cancers, and even death.

Ionizing radiation can be either short-wavelength electromagnetic radiation or particulate radiation. Gamma radiation and X-radiation are short-wavelength electromagnetic radiation. Alpha particles, beta particles, neutrons, and protons are particulate radiation. Alpha particles, beta particles, and gamma rays are the most commonly encountered forms of radioactive pollution. Alpha particles are simply ionized helium nuclei, and consist of two protons and two neutrons. Beta particles are electrons, which have a negative charge. Gamma radiation is high-energy electromagnetic radiation.

Scientists have devised various units for measuring radioactivity. A Curie (Ci) represents the rate of radioactive decay. One Curie is 3.7× 1010 radioactive disintegrations per second. A rad is a unit representing the absorbed dose of radioactivity. One rad is equal to an absorbed energy dose of 100 ergs per gram of radiated medium. One rad = 0.01 Grays. A rem is a unit that measures the effectiveness of radioactivity in causing biological damage. One rem is equal to one rad times a biological weighting factor. The weighting factor is 1.0 for gamma radiation and beta particles, and it is 20 for alpha particles. One rem = 1000 millirem = 0.01 Sieverts. The radioactive half-life is a measure of the persistence of radioactive material. The half-life is the time required for one-half of an initial quantity of atoms of a radioactive isotope to decay to a different isotope.

Sources of radioactive pollution

In the United States, people are typically exposed to about 350 millirems of ionizing radiation per year. On average, 82% of this radiation comes from natural sources and 18% from anthropogenic sources (i.e., those associated with human activities). The major natural source of radiation is radon gas, which accounts for about 55% of the total radiation dose. The principal anthropogenic sources of radioactivity are medical X-rays and nuclear medicine. Radioactivity from the fallout of nuclear weapons testing and from nuclear power plants make up less than 0.5% of the total radiation dose, i.e., less than 2 millirems. Although the contribution to the total human radiation dose is extremely small, radioactive isotopes released during previous atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons will remain in the atmosphere for the next 100 years.

Lifestyle and radiation dose

People who live in certain regions are exposed to higher doses of radiation. For example, residents of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado receive about 30 millirems more cosmic radiation than people living at sea level. This is because the atmosphere is thinner at higher elevations, and therefore less effective at shielding the surface from cosmic radiation. Exposure to cosmic radiation is also high while people are flying in an airplane, so pilots and flight attendants have an enhanced, occupational exposure. In addition, residents of certain regions receive higher doses of radiation from radon-222, due to local geological anomalies. Radon-222 is a colorless and odorless gas that results from the decay of naturally occurring, radioactive isotopes of uranium. Radon-222 typically enters buildings from their basement, or from certain mineral-containing construction materials. Ironically, the trend toward improved home insulation has increased the amount of radon-222 which remains trapped inside houses.

Personal lifestyle also influences the amount of radioactivity to which people are exposed. For example, miners, who spend a lot of time underground, are exposed to relatively high doses of radon-222 and consequently have relatively high rates of lung cancer. Cigarette smokers expose their lungs to high levels of radiation, since tobacco plants contain trace quantities of polonium-210, lead-210, and radon-222. These radioactive isotopes come from the small amount of uranium present in fertilizers used to promote tobacco growth. Consequently, the lungs of a cigarette smoker are exposed to thousands of additional millirems of radioactivity, although any associated hazards are much less than those of tar and nicotine.

Nuclear weapons testing

Nuclear weapons can release large amounts of radioactive materials when they are exploded. Most of the radioactive pollution from nuclear weapons testing is from iodine-131, cesium-137, and strontium-90. Iodine-131 is the least dangerous of these isotopes, although it has a relatively half-life of about eight days. Iodine-131 accumulates in the thyroid gland, and large doses can cause thyroid cancer. Cesium-137 has a half-life of about 30 years. It is chemically similar to potassium, and is distributed throughout the human body. Based on the total amount of cesium already in the atmosphere, all humans will receive about 27 millirems of radiation from cesium-137 over their lifetime. Strontium-90 has a half-life of 38 years. It is chemically similar to calcium and is deposited in bones. Strontium-90 is expelled from the body very slowly, and the uptake of significant amounts increases the risks of developing bone cancer or leukemia.

Nuclear power plants

Many environmentalists are critical of nuclear power generation. They believe that there is an unacceptable risk of catastrophic accident, that the spread of nuclear energy technology increases the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation, and that the nuclear fuel cycle generates large amounts of unmanageable nuclear waste that will represent a long-term danger to human well-being.

The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission has strict requirements regarding the amount of radioactivity that can be released from a nuclear power reactor. In particular, a nuclear reactor can expose an individual who lives on the fence line of the power plant to no more than 10 millirems of radiation per year. Actual measurements at U.S. nuclear power plants have shown that a person who lived at the fence line would actually be exposed to much less that 10 millirems.

Thus, for a typical person who is exposed to about 350 millirems of radiation per year from all other sources, much of which is natural background, the proportion of radiation from nuclear power plants is extremely small. In fact, coal- and oil-fired power plants, which release small amounts of radioactivity contained in their fuels, are responsible for more airborne radioactive pollution in the United States than are nuclear power plants.

Although a nuclear power plant cannot explode like an atomic bomb, accidents can result in serious radioactive pollution. During the past 45 years, there have been a number of not-fully controlled or uncontrolled fission reactions at nuclear power plants in the United States and elsewhere, which have killed or injured power plant workers. These accidents occurred in Los Alamos, New Mexico; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Richland, Washington; and Wood River Junction, Rhode Island. The most famous case was the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania, which received a great deal of attention in the press. However, nuclear scientists have estimated that people living within 50 mi (80 km) of this reactor were exposed to less than two millirems of radiation, most of it as iodine-131, a short-lived isotope. This exposure constituted less than 1% of the total annual radiation dose of an average person. However, these data do not mean that the accident at Three Mile Island was not a serious one; fortunately, technicians were able to re-attain control of the reactor before more devastating damage occurred, and the reactor system was well contained so that only a relatively small amount of radioactivity escaped to the ambient environment.

By far, the worst nuclear reactor accident occurred in 1986 in Chernobyl, Ukraine. An uncontrolled build-up of heat resulted in a meltdown of the reactor core and combustion of graphite moderator material in one of the several generating units at Chernobyl, releasing more than 50 million Curies of radioactivity to the ambient environment. The disaster killed 31 workers, and resulted in the hospitalization of more than 500 other people from radiation sickness. According to Ukrainian authorities, during the decade following the Chernobyl disaster an estimated 10,000 people in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine died from cancers and other radiation-related diseases caused by the accident. In addition to these relatively local effects, the atmosphere transported radiation from Chernobyl into Europe and throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

More than 500,000 people in the vicinity of Chernobyl were exposed to dangerously high doses of radiation, and more than 300,000 people were permanently evacuated from the vicinity. Since radiation-related health problems may appear decades after exposure, scientists expect that many thousands of additional people will eventually suffer higher rates of thyroid cancer, bone cancer, leukemia, and other radiation-related diseases. Unfortunately, a cover-up of the explosion by responsible authorities, including those in government, endangered even more people. Many local residents did not known that they should flee the area as soon as possible, or were not provided with the medical attention they needed.

The large amount of radioactive waste generated by nuclear power plants is another important problem. This waste will remain radioactive for many thousands of years, so technologists must design systems for extremely long-term storage. One obvious problem is that the long-term reliability of the storage systems cannot be fully assured, because they cannot be directly tested for the length of time they will be used (i.e., for tens or hundreds of thousands of years). A related problem is that the waste will remain extremely dangerous for much longer than the expected lifetimes of existing governments and social institutions. Thus, we are making the societies of the following millennia, however they may be structured, responsible for the safe storage of nuclear waste that is being generated today.

Biological effects of radioactivity

The amount of injury caused by a radioactive isotope depends on its physical half-life, and on how quickly it is absorbed and then excreted by an organism. Most studies of the harmful effects of radiation have been performed on single-celled organisms. Obviously, the situation is more complex in humans and other multicellular organisms, because a single cell damaged by radiation may indirectly affect other cells in the individual. The most sensitive regions of the human body appear to be those which have many actively dividing cells, such as the skin, gonads, intestine, and tissues that grow blood cells (spleen, bone marrow, lymph organs).

Radioactivity is toxic because it forms ions when it reacts with biological molecules. These ions can form free radicals, which damage proteins, membranes, and nucleic acids. Radioactivity can damage DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) by destroying individual bases (particularly thymine), by breaking single strands, by breaking double strands, by cross-linking different DNA strands, and by cross-linking DNA and proteins. Damage to DNA can lead to cancers, birth defects, and even death.

However, cells have biochemical repair systems which can reverse some of the damaging biological effects of low-level exposures to radioactivity. This allows the body to better tolerate radiation that is delivered at a low dose rate, such as over a longer period of time. In fact, all humans are exposed to radiation in extremely small doses throughout their life. The biological effects of such small doses over such a long time are almost impossible to measure, and are essentially unknown at present. There is, however, a theoretical possibility that the small amount of radioactivity released into the environment by


Curie (Ci) A unit representing the rate of radioactive decay. 1 Ci = 3.7× 1010 disintegrations per second.

Ionizing radiation Any electromagnetic or particulate radiation capable of direct or indirect ion production in its passage through matter.

Isotopes Two molecules in which the number of atoms and the types of atoms are identical, but their arrangement in space is different, resulting in different chemical and physical properties. Isotopes may be radioactive.

Nonionizing radiation Long-wavelength electromagnetic radiation.

Rad A unit of absorbed ionizing radiation which results in the absorption of 100 ergs of energy per gram of medium. 1 Rad = 0.01 Gray.

Radioactive half-life The time required for half the atoms of a radioactive isotope to decay to a more stable isotope.

Radioactivity Spontaneous release of subatomic particles or gamma rays by unstable atoms as their nuclei decay.

Rem A unit of the biological effectiveness of absorbed radiation, which is equal to the radiation dose in rad multiplied by a biological weighting factor, which is determined by the particular type of radiation. 1 rem = 0.01 Sievert.

normally operating nuclear power plants, and by previous atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, has slightly increased the incidence of certain cancers in human populations. However, scientists have not been able to conclusively show that such an effect has actually occurred.

Currently, there is disagreement among scientists about whether there is a threshold dose for radiation damage to organisms. In other words, is there a dose of radiation below which there are no harmful biological effects? Some scientists maintain that there is no such threshold, and that radiation at any dose carries a finite risk of causing some biological damage. Furthermore, the damage caused by very low doses of radiation may be cumulative, or additive to the damage caused by other harmful agents to which humans are exposed. Other scientists maintain that there is a threshold dose for radiation damage. They believe that biological repair systems, which are presumably present in all cells, can fix the biological damage caused by extremely low doses of radiation. Thus, these scientists claim that the extremely low doses of radiation to which humans are commonly exposed are not harmful.

One of the most informative studies of the harmful effects of radiation is a long-term investigation of the survivors of the 1945 atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki by James Neel and his colleagues. The survivors of these explosions had abnormally high rates of cancer, leukemia, and other diseases. However, there seemed to be no detectable effect on the occurrence of genetic defects in children of the survivors. The radiation dose needed to cause heritable defects in humans is higher than biologists originally expected.

Radioactive pollution is an important environmental problem. It could become much worse if extreme vigilance is not utilized in the handling and use of radioactive materials, and in the design and operation of nuclear power plants.

See also Radiation exposure; Radioactive fallout; X rays.



Brechignac, F. Health Effects on Environmental Radioactivity: Impacts of Life. New York: Pergamon, 2007.

International Atomic Energy Agency. Protection of the Environment from the Effects of Ionizing Radiation: Proceedings of an International Conference Stockholm 6-10 2003. Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency, 2004.

Tykva, Richard adn Dieter Berg. Man-Made and Natural Radioactivity in Environmental Pollution and Radiochronology. New York: Springer, 2004.

Peter A. Ensminger