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Ionizing radiations such as gamma-rays and x-rays are radiations that have sufficient energy to displace electrons from molecules. These freed electrons then have the capability of damaging other molecules and, in particular, DNA. Thus, the potential health effects of low levels of radiation are important to understand in order to be able to quantify their effects. For example, it has been estimated that 10% of lung cancers are attributable to radon exposures. In recent years the amount of radiation that the public receives has greatly increased due to medical applications, especially the higher doses associated with computed tomography (CT) scans. Currently 50% of radiation exposures are from medical, 48% from environmental (primarily radon), and 2% from consumer products. The average yearly total effective exposure to individuals is 6.2 mSv. For an extensive analysis, the reader is referred to National Council on Radiation Protection (NCRP) Report 160 (NCRP, 2009). Fig. 25-1 taken from the report gives a summary breakdown of exposure sources.

Figure 25-1.

Percent contribution of total effective dose to individuals (NCRP Report 160).

Biological effects of radiation are primarily damage to the DNA. Atoms of the DNA target may be directly ionized or indirectly affected by the creation of a free radical that can interact with the DNA molecule. In particular, the hydroxyl radical is predominant in DNA damage. For radiation particles such as neutrons and α particles the damage is primarily direct, whereas for photons such as x-rays, about two-thirds of the DNA damage in mammalian cells is due to hydroxy radicals. The study of health effects of ionizing radiation is complicated by the fact that there are various types of radiation, from x-ray photons to heavy charged particles encountered in space. Within any type of radiation the potential damage also depends on the energy level of the photons or particles.

Cancer has been the major adverse health effect of ionizing radiation. It has been well studied epidemiologically, as well as in the laboratory and in animal toxicological studies. More recently, there has been a concern with possible cardiovascular effects, cataractogenesis, and possibly immunosenescence. At one time there was considerable concern about the possible heritable effects, but the risks now appear to be small. The issues with chemicals are the risks at low doses, and with radiation the effects of acute versus chronic exposures. Most radiation risk analyses depend on epidemiological studies. There have been many that have large populations and varied exposures. There is, however, a need for better radiobiological understanding of potential health effects in order to estimate low-dose effects, sensitive subgroups, and radiation types and energies that have not been adequately studied.


Types of Ionizing Radiation

When ionizing radiation passes through matter, it has the energy to ionize atoms so ...

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