How Much Radiation can the Human Body Safely Receive?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Since the advent of nuclear energy and space travel, humans have been exposed to radiation more frequently and it has become a hot topic. There are various different things that people call “radiation”, but the type that damages humans is composed of either electromagnetic waves or atomic nuclei, which do their damage through ionization — knocking the electrons in atoms off their orbits. If a human is exposed to too much of this energy, it can cause damage, sometimes making it impossible for certain cells to continue replacing themselves, which can be fatal. How much a person can receive safely depends on the nature of the radiation and the tissue it encounters, but doses of 6 sieverts or more are nearly always deadly.

Astronauts and cosmonauts, such as those who fly in the Soyuz capsule, are exposed to more radiation than people on Earth.
Astronauts and cosmonauts, such as those who fly in the Soyuz capsule, are exposed to more radiation than people on Earth.

Radiation absorbed by tissue is measured in rads, where a rad is a hundredth of a joule per kilogram of tissue. A gray, a hundred times this value, is the more recently used International System of Units (SI) equivalent. Rads and grays only measure the physical intensity of the energy, which does not accurately correlate to “damage done.”

Self-contained environmental suits can be worn by nuclear plant workers and emergency response crews to reduce the harmful effects of radiation.
Self-contained environmental suits can be worn by nuclear plant workers and emergency response crews to reduce the harmful effects of radiation.

By multiplying the intensity by two variables, Q and N, a more accurate “damage done” unit is derived, the sievert (Sv), which is a hundred times the rem. Both units are used to measure the same thing, and though the latter term is more commonly used, the former is more scientifically proper. The rad converts to the rem, while the gray converts to the sievert.

Radiation can cause burns, poisoning and other injuries that require emergency care.
Radiation can cause burns, poisoning and other injuries that require emergency care.

The variable Q changes based on the nature of the radiation. Photons, a relatively light form of radiation, have a Q of 1, while atomic nuclei, a relatively heavy form, have a Q of 20. The variable N changes based on the relevant tissue and species. Humans are more sensitive than most animals, therefore holding the relatively high N value of 1. A virus may have an N value a hundred or even ten thousand times smaller than this. Because of variations based on these two values, a given gray can do a wide range of actual damage, measured in sieverts.

Keeping phone calls short may reduce radiation exposure.
Keeping phone calls short may reduce radiation exposure.

There is a small amount of ambient background radiation everywhere on earth, which we and all life on this planet are adapted to deal with. This varies significantly based on location, but a good average is 2.4 millisieverts (mSv) per year. In space, the level may be dozens or hundreds of times this value.

Radiation today is mainly released in abrupt exposures, so researchers mostly know about the effects of absorbing a given quantity in a very short time frame. At about 0.5 sievert to 1 sievert, the effects of radiation sickness can be felt. A portion of the red blood cells are temporarily wiped out, and sperm in the testes are deprived of their ability to fertilize an egg until they are recreated. Mild headache and loss of focus temporarily occur.

In exposures ranging from about 1 to 2 sieverts, permanent effects begin. Most people experience mild nausea, sometimes accompanied by vomiting, which lasts for about a day. A feeling of general illness persists for a week or two.

For levels of radiation more intense than this, bad things happen. For every additional sievert past 1, the chance of death within 30 days increases by about 15%, adding to a base rate of around 10%. This means that about 25% of all people die within 30 days of exposure to 2 sieverts, around 40% of people die after exposure to 3 sieverts, and about 55% of people die after exposure to 4 sieverts. At 6 sieverts, the death rate is 90%, which increases quickly to 100%. The primary causes of death are internal bleeding or immune system failure that rapidly gives way to lethal infection. Hair is lost, people are rendered sterile, bone marrow is destroyed, and recovery can take years and may never be complete.

Radiation exposure of about 0.5 sievert to 1 sievert can deprive sperm in the testes of their ability to fertilize an egg until they are recreated.
Radiation exposure of about 0.5 sievert to 1 sievert can deprive sperm in the testes of their ability to fertilize an egg until they are recreated.
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments

transit

Dear Anon982568

I'm personally going through hell at present because of overexposure to some kind of high tech CT Scan. In Australia in my opinion the medical profession is out of any reasonable control. I have been at odds with nothing short of yet another criminal doctor for a long time. I have, over time, studied the far reaching powers and those applying them. More to the point, there are a few doctors around this town who have decided I'm not their flavor of the month. Having said that, recently I was coerced into a PET scan machine last November. They told me I had asbestos in my lungs. I thought this very strange, having not been exposed to any actual asbestos to the best of my knowledge. Making a long story short, I fronted up on the day and allowed myself to get into this multi-million dollar high tech piece of digital medical equipment.

So what happened next was a scan of my lungs, taking under three minutes. Then to my astonishment, the table slid shallower into the machine, allowing whoever was driving this thing access to my brain. At this point with my research, correct me if I'm wrong, modern PET scan machines nowadays have a CT scan coil also built into the machine which assists the PET side of the machine with accuracy, helping the radiologist to pinpoint the very spot where a probable tumor is located on the brain. I am unsure but this CT side of this PET scan machine, may have other varying fancy attributes in order to deal with tumors, like maybe a cyber knife? Which in my limited mental capacity, is concentrated ionizing radiation?

So getting further to the point, I should have jumped out of said machine as soon as they took it to my head.

What happened to me after this procedure is horrible. I have had endless micro headaches, introducing themselves, as micromigraines in three different areas of my brain (not a formal stroke) These horrendous experiences on three occasions put me in an ambulance to hospital, since then endless micro headaches, like I've never experienced before in my life. Nausea was part of the experience, along, again with endless headaches. One time I had an extreme headache experience, which disappeared after excretion. That told me my body was trying like hell to deal with this. So after that around the six month mark, I had about a week of somnolence syndrome. (Look that one up.) My head was on fire. No sleep, again horrendous to say the least. So now I am approaching the eight month from last November, and still have low grade spasm headaches, no power. I'm so scared with so little information available to me. Varying doctors want nothing to do with it and I was warned by one that if I keep suggesting any wrongdoing by the profession, they would collude and put me away under the mental health act.

Wrapping up, I'm in a fix. I think it was deliberate, based on my history, (without the detail)

I feel certain, soon I will start throwing tumors. Being months out before somnolence hit me, tells me I acquired a high dosage of ionized radiation to the head and whole brain. The micro bleeds were deep in my brain. In the cover-up, the neurologist told me the tiny hemorrhages would disappear by November this year.

So there is more to tell, but I will wrap it up. I am now awaiting my fate. Please, any learned comments with regard to my future would be appreciated. Please don't tell me you are sorry to hear it. It is what it is. Thanks.

anon982568

I was coerced into taking a head and neck cat scan at a hospital, despite being in no pain and the ER attendant saying I did not have any broken bones. That was about nine weeks ago and since then I've had serious issues with my physical health. Today, my skin continues to have irritation and a red rash near my shoulders. I'm also having recurring headaches, which can last for hours, and they are of a type I've never experienced before and are most unpleasant.

I've had speech problems which have subsided somewhat but not quite entirely. I've had a sensation in my spine in between my shoulder blades, numb hands upon waking, tinnitus, and many other problems. I can't find a physician who knows what to do about them.

The ones I've encountered think it is psychosomatic -- a real adding insult to injury kind of diagnosis that I feel is more rooted in wishful thinking, arrogance, and ignorance than science and investigation. If you feel you know what happened to me please comment. If you are thinking of taking a cat scan, I recommend you don't.

anon345014

I am concerned with the radiation that is traveling from Japan's nuclear disaster. I have read numerous warnings, but they do not state the levels I may receive (depending on where I live, what I eat and current health) in southern Calif. Please advise as to the severity. No one is talking about this and I do not know what to do.

anon320399

How many sieverts cause cancer? (on average)

anon110991

I have had 35 treatments of radiation for lung cancer. No matter what some doctors say you do get sick off of radiation treatments. I would barely make it to the car and throw up. I heard a nurse tell a patient at Moffit you cannot get sick. This is not true for everyone.

anon55803

In cells that are rapidly dividing, the DNA is a more accessible state. So organs like the liver, GI, skin, sperm, bone marrow are susceptible to radiation.

The brain is not as susceptible to radiation, since the cells are not dividing. So, radiation treatment in brain tumors is would be focused on a very specific section and likely need a high dose of radiation. The body can withstand high dose radiation in a limited space better than widespread radiation at a low dose, since more organ systems would be affected with a widespread radiation dose.

In treating cancer, its often optimal to have a combination of radiation, surgery, and chemotherapy.

At least, this is what I've learned as a first year med student so far.

anon17757

why are some organs like liver, and kidneys more vulnerable to radiation toxicity, then others? also, do natural radiations exert any harmful effect on the living system? if yes, how much?

what is the basis of individual differences in the acquired resistance towards the radiations in humans?

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