The word ‘radiation’ is one that conjures up certain connotations. We associate radiation primarily with danger. Radiation, we immediately think, causes cancer. It’s also about nuclear explosions. Radiation = danger. Except that’s not always the case.
Radiation is in fact all around us in different forms, many of them natural. This is known as background radiation and is the reason why a Geiger Counter – the instrument used to measure radiation in objects – will register a level just about anywhere. Background radiation is emitted by certain minerals.
Background radiation is not dangerous, but some types of radiation are. There are four main types of radiation and within each, there are different levels of power and strength. These limit or permit what certain types of radiation can pass through. Let’s start by talking about electromagnetic radiation sources, which you may be surprised to find you likely use every day.
A well-known example of electromagnetic radiation is an X-ray. You may have been subjected to one of these during a medical examination. Each type of radiation behaves in a different way and can travel different distances. An X-ray is a powerful form of electromagnetic radiation. It passes through the body and creates an internal image. Too much exposure to this form of radiation can be dangerous.
Gamma rays are also electromagnetic radiation and can be very powerful too. However, less powerful types of this radiation are used in what is known as radiofrequency or RF technology. Every time you swipe your credit or debit card the chip in the card emits a very low RF signal to confirm the transaction. RF is in the keys that lock your car remotely, in TV remote controls, and – of course – in the radio waves that allow you to listen to your chosen station.
For a full RF definition click that link and you will find an informative article that explains the way RF technology works.
In fact, if you want the different types of radiation explained in more detail – there are plenty of information sources to be found on various websites. An alpha particle is responsible for Alpha Radiation. This is the type that forms the background radiation all around us. This is the heaviest type of radioactive particle and is emitted by the likes of uranium and other natural elements present in the earth.
However, there is a misconception about Alpha Radiation. It is so big in radiation terms that it cannot pass through many solid objects. In fact, it cannot pass through a sheet of paper. It can also not penetrate the skin but if ingested can cause problems with internal organs. Radon, a danger in the home, is Alpha radiation that can be dangerous.
The Alpha Particle makes itself useful in a number of domestic implements including the smoke alarm. It cannot penetrate smoke, so triggers the alarm.
Beta particles are responsible for beta radiation. This is all around us like its alpha counterpart as it is emitted by a number of natural elements found on Earth. Beta particles are smaller than alpha particles, but also do not travel very far.
Beta particles can pass into the body but not through. They can be kept out by minor shielding. However, beta radiation is useful in medicine. These particles are known to help destroy cancerous tumors. They are also used in medical imaging when injected into the body.
There is a natural element known as Tritium, produced by cosmic radiation, that emits beta particles. Tritium is all around us all the time, so we are being constantly exposed to background levels of beta radiation. This is not dangerous and should not cause concern.
Beta particles are also emitted by Carbon-14, which is used to date ancient artifacts, hence it is another form of radiation that does a job we appreciate.
The final form of radiation is Neutron radiation. If we tell you that an alpha particle consists of two neutrons and two protons and a beta particle is an electron with a negative charge that is not attached to an atom it might help you discern the difference. Electromagnetic radiation has no mass or charge.
Neutron particles also have no charge, and they are found in the nucleus of an atom. This is where things get interesting. Neutrons, when split from the atom, cause the nuclear reaction used to generate power. This is known as fission. Neutron particles – unlike the alpha and beta particles – are notoriously difficult to stop and create a chain reaction. They are essential in the world as energy generators and also in weaponry.
A large amount of water or other special atomic materials are all that will stop a neutron particle, yet science has developed the fission process that can be carefully controlled.
So, that’s your four types of radiation explained. The dangers lie in over-exposure to powerful alpha or beta particles, and in the fact that neutron particles when split from the atom create a nuclear chain reaction that led to the development of the devastating atom bomb. What we’re interested in are the types of radiation that exist naturally around us and that which we use for various purposes in the form of RF technology. Let’s close by having a few words on safety and RF.
RF and Safety
RF technology is fundamentally safe to use. The low power of that which your mobile phone, debit cards, and other RF items emit is such that it is barely noticeable. Among much research, there is no evidence that regular daily use of such items is of any danger. This sort of scare story has escalated in recent years with the roll-out of 5G technology, yet it remains a fact that it is entirely safe for use by humans.
Over-exposure to any type of radiation is dangerous – the sun’s rays are also a form of radiation and we are all aware of what excessive sunlight does to the skin – but it is simply not possible to be over-exposed to the RF technology we use every day.