What is ionizing radiation and non-ionizing radiation?

Low levels of radiation are all around us in different forms. Some examples include ultraviolet radiation from the sun, electromagnetic waves in a microwave oven or solar flares from the sun, and radon gas in the environment. Various sources of radiation are also used for medical purposes such as imaging a patient’s anatomy for disease or injuries or as a therapy for treating malignant (cancerous) and benign (non-cancerous) tumors. Radiation can be categorized as ionizing and non-ionizing. Listed below are examples of ionizing and non-ionizing radiation.

Sources of Ionizing Radiation

  • X-rays
  • CT scans
  • Brachytherapy radioactive isotopes
  • Radiation therapy (photons, electrons, protons, neutrons, gammas)
  • Natural radioactive isotopes in the earth produced by cosmic rays
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Airport luggage scanners

Sources of Non-Ionizing Radiation

  • MRI scans
  • Ultrasound
  • Infrared radiation from warming lamps
  • Microwave radiation (used for heating food and in telecommunications)
  • Radio waves (used for broadcasting and communications)
  • Lasers
  • Thermal radiation

Non-ionizing radiation, such as infrared warming lamps, radio waves, and lasers, is not harmful when used in a manner as recommended by the manufacturer.

Normal background exposures of ionizing radiation are all around us and are not hazardous to your health. Cumulative ionizing radiation exposures are a concern because the accumulation of cell damage may cause health problems later in life. Exposures exceeding background levels of ionizing radiation is extremely rare, but potential hazards include medical errors, occupational exposure to the fetus in a woman unaware of pregnancy, and accidents associated with nuclear power plants. You can prevent unwanted radiation exposure by the following these recommendations.

  1. Be aware of your surroundings. If you see a radiation hazard sign, stay out. Controlled areas are restricted to authorized staff trained to work with radioactive materials.
  2. Be actively engaged in your medical care. Check your provider’s medical orders for accuracy. If your doctor writes an order to x-ray your left shoulder but the right shoulder is the one with the problem, inform the medical staff immediately—don’t let yourself be irradiated in an incorrect location. When in doubt, have your healthcare provider explain the levels of radiation you will be receiving and the potential risks, if any, associated with your imaging or treatment. Ask your dentist for a lead apron whenever you have x-rays taken.
  3. Make sure your healthcare provider asks for your identification information before any procedure to help ensure you receive the correct imaging or treatment procedure.
  4. If there is any possibility of pregnancy, have your healthcare provider perform a pregnancy test prior to any diagnostic or therapeutic procedure.
  5. Workers in areas at risk for receiving radiation exposure should know the type of radiation in the area and should be trained in emergency procedures that will minimize exposure and potential accidents or mistake.

How are radiation workers protected from radiation?

Radiation workers are given badge dosimeters to track and verify that their occupational exposure does not exceed regulatory limits. If you are a radiation worker, be sure to wear your issued dosimeter badge at all times when you are in the work area. This will ensure corrective action is taken if occupational exposures are unexpectedly higher than usual.

Radiation workers receive special training in operating machines that produce radiation or contain radioactive materials.  They are taught safe practices, emergency procedures, and how to use equipment that minimizes their risk of radiation exposure.

Image courtesy of Dr. Titania Juang.
Medical staff working in radiation areas will wear radiation badges, similar to the one shown here, to monitor and track radiation exposure. With proper radiation shielding and precautions, radiation dose to workers is typically very low.

Environmental radiation exposure may be minimized by following these strategies.

  1. Minimize your time of exposure.
  2. Increase the distance between you and the radiation source.
  3. Shield yourself from the radiation source by placing a high-density barrier material (heavy metal, such as lead or tungsten) between you and the source.

Female radiation workers should inform their supervisors of any impending pregnancies so their workloads may be temporarily altered to minimize any potentially harmful exposures to the unborn fetus, especially during the first trimester.

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