radiation protective suit

What Is Radiation And How Does It Affect Us?

Your Questions Answered

At this time, it’s almost impossible to watch or read a news report without the topic of a Nuclear War being mentioned. If a nuclear attack was to happen it would bring with it the risk of exposure to harmful doses of radiation. This could potentially cause life-threatening damage to the human body. Understanding the basics of radiation and how it can affect us will help you become better prepared.

This article will provide some basic information and answer the following questions:

What Is Radiation?

How Does Radiation Affect Us?

How Are We Exposed To Radiation?

What is Radiation?

Radiation occurs through the transfer of energy in the form of waves or particles that move from one place to another.

There are two types Of Radiation:

  1. Non-ionising, such as visible light, mobile phone signals, and radio waves.
  2. Ionizing, such as emissions from uranium ore and high-frequency waves in the electromagnetic spectrum such as X-rays.

Ionizing radiation is capable of disrupting stable atoms and causing them to have an imbalance of charge known as ionization. This can cause chemical changes in living matter which can cause harm to people’s health. The severity would depend on the amount a person is exposed to.

What Is Ionizing Radiation?

Unstable atoms in a material are said to decay giving out ionizing radiation in the process. The ability of a material to decay and emit ionizing radiation is known as radioactivity. This is why such material is called radioactive material.

As the unstable atoms in a radioactive material decay, the atoms change to another form. The time it takes for half the unstable atoms in a material to decay and change is known as the half-life. Each radioactive material has its own half-life. Half Life’s can vary from less than a few seconds to more than thousands of years.

There are three main types of ionizing radiation alpha, beta, and gamma. Alpha and beta are in the form of particles, while gamma is a wave similar to X-rays. These forms differ in their ability to penetrate into the human body or other materials. They also differ in their ability to cause people harm.

Alpha Particles Explained

Alpha particles are relatively large, heavy and slow and are not able to penetrate very far through materials. Penetration of alpha particles can be halted by a few centimeters of air or a sheet of paper. Even the dead layer of skin on the outside of our bodies can stop penetration. As alpha particles cannot usually penetrate deep into the body so they do not pose a significant hazard from outside the body.

However, radioactive materials emitting alpha particles can still get into the body in other ways. If alpha particles are either:

  • Inhaled.
  • Digested.
  • Or enter the body through open wounds.

If this happens they can then damage tissue and have a greater potential to cause cancer than beta particles and gamma rays.

Beta Particles Explained

Beta Particles are relatively light, small and fast, so they can travel several meters in the air. They can penetrate through any exposed area of the skin. Therefore, beta particles can present a hazard from inside or outside the body. Although It is possible to stop beta particles penetration by using thin sheets of aluminum or perspex.

Gamma Rays Explained

Gamma rays have no weight and can penetrate the body. They deposit some of their energy on the way through causing harm. These rays are a hazard both inside and outside the body. To prevent or reduce the penetration of gamma rays thick, heavy shielding would be required.

How Does Radiation Affect Us?

The term radiation dose is used to describe the amount of energy absorbed by a material from the ionizing radiation passing through it. The most common measure of radiation dose to people is called an effective dose.

An effective dose takes into account the different sensitivities of organs in the body and the effects of the different types of radiation. Large effective doses are measured in units called sieverts. In most cases, a dose will be measured in microsieverts.

At low levels, radiation causes no immediate perceptible damage to people. However, any exposure to it is considered to be capable of increasing the lifetime risk of cancer and of passing on hereditary illnesses to children. Individuals exposed to very high doses may receive burns to the skin, damage to the gastrointestinal, cardiovascular or nervous systems, and exceedingly high doses can cause death.

How Are We Exposed To Radiation?

People have always been exposed to various forms of low-level radiation that come from both natural and artificial sources. For example minerals in the ground and medical x-rays.

According to the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements. The average annual dose per person in the U.S. is 6.2 millisieverts. In the UK on average, people receive an annual dose of 2.7 millisieverts.

Natural sources include gamma rays from the natural radioactivity in the Earth such as:

  • In building materials.
  • Small amounts of natural radioactivity in food and drink.
  • Cosmic rays which bombard the Earth from space.

However, the greatest contribution by far comes from breathing radon gas. Which is produced by naturally radioactive materials in the Earth.

Inhalation of radon gas leads to alpha-particle irradiation of the lungs and has been shown to cause lung cancer.


The purpose of this article is to help people better understand what radiation is and where it comes from. The thought of a nuclear attack is indeed a scary one. We can only hope that the tensions surrounding the current nuclear activities of North Korea subside and a resolution is found.

In the meantime understanding more about radiation and other areas of nuclear preparedness will help you to become better prepared. Below are some links to articles that cover the topics of nuclear preparedness in more detail.

Recommended Reading

Radiation Sources and Doses

Frequently Asked Questions About a Nuclear Blast

Practical Steps To Reduce Nuclear Attack Exposure

SHTF Gas Mask Face Mask Drilldown

Consequences Of A Nuclear Attack

Preparing To Survive A Nuclear Attack

Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

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