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What Are the Effects of Radiation?

An MRI machine uses radiation to diagnose illness or injury.
Astronauts and cosmonauts, such as those who fly in the Soyuz capsule, are exposed to more radiation than people on Earth.
Smoke detectors emit radiation.
Samples of blood from a healthy person and one with leukemia. Radiation exposure may cause leukemia and other forms of cancer.
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  • Written By: Laura Evans
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 15 July 2014
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The effects of radiation can be positive and negative. For example, radiation is part and parcel of today's technology. Smoke detectors, microwave ovens, and computers all emit radiation. Radiation is also used to treat cancer. On the other hand, overexposure to radiation can lead to hair loss, fatigue, loss of white blood cells, sterility, cancer, and death.

German professor Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen (1845-1923) discovered x-rays, or x-radiation, in 1895. His discovery that x-rays could pass through tissue but was blocked by metals and bones would have far-reaching effects in medicine. For the first time, surgeons could use x-rays to help perform surgery with less damage to the human body.

Another form of radiation was discovered in 1896 by French scientist Henri Becquerel (1852-1908). Becquerel discovered natural radiation when investigating fluorescence. One of the minerals that Becquerel used in his investigation was a uranium compound. Unlike Roentgen’s discovery, Becquerel’s discovery went largely unnoticed.

This lack of interest changed when Polish scientist Marie Curie (1867-1934) and her husband, French scientist Pierre Curie (1859-1906) discovered other radioactive elements such as polonium and radium, both of which are more radioactive than uranium. The Curies and Becquerel received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 for their works. Marie Curie eventually died from leukemia, one of the possible biological effects of radiation exposure.

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During these early years of radiation science, people were unaware of the negative effects of radiation. Those who worked with radiation did not take protective measures because they did not realize that protective measures were necessary. By 1900, scientists and medical personnel understood that x-rays could produce skin burns.

Within days of the United States dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945, experts and civilians expressed conflicting views of the effects of radiation. Dr. Howard Jacobson, a former scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project, the project that developed the nuclear bomb, said that Hiroshima might be uninhabitable for 70 years. On the other hand, the US military controlled and censored news that was printed in America to reduce the knowledge of the effects of radiation exposure on the Japanese population.

Today, scientists and laymen alike know the effects that the atomic bomb had on the people of Hiroshima, and later, Nagasaki, Japan. Thousands of people died immediately while others suffered a lingering death. Some survivors suffered genetic damage due to radiation exposure that affected the lives of their children and future generations.

Radiation also can save lives. External beam radiation therapy used on tumors in the prostrate gland can prevent the spread of prostate cancer. Cancer can be treated using radiation therapy to shrink tumors if surgery is not a viable option. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) computed tomography (CT scans) and ultrasonography are diagnostic tools that use radiation. One of the most dramatic examples of the effect of radition can be seen with the sun. Without the sun there would not be any life on earth. The sun emits also radiation that can ultimately lead to skin cancer, and perhaps, death.

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