10 Common Sources of Radiation in Your House and Job--Are they Safe?
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10 Common Sources of Radiation in Your House and Job --Are They Safe?

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March 31, 2011
By LOUISE CARR, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist









Once again, the spectre of nuclear apocalypse is upon us. The mushroom cloud is on the horizon and stores have run out of potassium iodide pills. Following the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and the damage to Japan's nuclear reactors, the world's eyes are on possible nuclear meltdown. If you've been protesting since the 80's against nuclear power and nuclear weapons, you may feel vindicated. Or ,you may just be plain petrified.

But take a step back. What's the reality behind the fear? Should you panic? It may come as some surprise, but radiation is all around us. Everything is radioactive in some way - the sidewalk, your car, the dog's fur and the food you eat. Everyday objects in your home or office give you a dose of radiation every day.

Why? Because almost everything contains a tiny amount of radioactive atoms like Potassium 40, Radium 226 and Radon 222. The earth has been exposed to radiation from natural sources since the big bang - Uranium and Radium were formed when the world was created. We even get radiation from outer space, called cosmic radiation.

Will all this radiation exposure turn you into a mutant or fry your brain? No one wants to live in a cave but what is the real risk of radiation in our modern lives - are there radiation dangers in our homes? What are the common sources of radiation in our jobs? Recently, a large radiation-soaked cloud from Japan's nuclear accident passed over the US, Canada and Europe.  Although this massive cloud passed over North America without warning, people in France were warned by Radio France  several days in advance although the cloud posed no health threat, according to the French Nuclear Safety Authority. Will  the radiation from Japan's power plants  one day affect our health?

What Are Normal Levels of Radiation?

According to the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement, 82 percent of the radiation we are exposed to comes from natural sources - radon (55 percent), cosmic radiation (8 percent), terrestrial radiation (8 percent) and internal radiation (11 percent). Artificial sources such as x-rays, nuclear medicine and consumer products account for the other 18 percent.

Radiation exposure risk is expressed in units called millirem (mrem). Japan uses a different measurement, the Sievert (Sv) or milliSievert (mSv). One milliSievert equals 100 millirems. According to the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement, we are each exposed to a dose equivalent to 360 mrem per year from natural and man-made sources. Around 300 mrem comes from natural sources. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, this is a normal level. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends limiting your exposure to non-natural radiation to around 100 mrem per year from man-made sources.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency has a useful tool on its website  where you can calculate your radiation dose. For example, if you live at 3,000 feet, in a stone or brick house, watch TV, use a computer, have a smoke detector and receive one medical x-ray a year your dose comes out as 376.149 mrem.

You receive a larger yearly radiation dose if you are a doctor, nurse, radiographer or dentist (radiation from x-rays), a pharmacist (radiation from medical drugs), or a pilot or flight attendant (cosmic radiation). If you live at a high altitude or travel in a plane you also get more exposure to cosmic radiation from outer space - the atmosphere shields us but the more air between us and outer space the better.

Does this mean you'll get sick if you travel by plane a lot? What about that smoke detector - by how much does it increase your radiation exposure? The following chart gives a quick overview of common sources of radiation in everyday life:

Radiation  Chart Common Household and Job Items
















Data comes from "Radiobiology for the Radiologist" by Eric Hall, National Academy of Science and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

How Does Radiation Cause Harm?

When does radiation stop being just another component of the atmosphere and become harmful to our health? Radioactive materials produce ionizing radiation - alpha and beta particles, or gamma and X-rays - with enough energy to break chemical bonds and tear electrons from atoms. This damage can happen to living tissue. Your body attempts to repair the damage but sometimes it is too severe or extensive. Sometimes the act of repair can cause cancerous cells to grow.

Long-term, low-level (or chronic) exposure to radiation causes cancer and DNA mutations. Short-term, high-level (or acute) exposure to radiation causes burns and radiation sickness. Exposing unborn children to radiation can result in abnormally slow growth, mental retardation, and smaller head or brain size. Genetic defects as a result of radiation exposure can be passed on to future generations.

When Am I At Risk?

Looking at the figures, it's pretty clear that all the smoke alarms in the world aren't going to cause much harm to your health.

However, when it comes to nuclear accidents and leaks, you could be in trouble. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to 50,000 mrem of radiation causes nausea and fatigue, 70,000 mrem vomiting.

The earliest onset of radiation sickness comes at exposure to 75,000 mrem of radiation. At 90,000 mrem you suffer diarrhea, at 100,000 mrem hemorrhage.

If you are exposed to 400,000 mrem for two months without medical attention, you will likely die. If you get exposed to 1 million mrem you will die within two weeks without medical attention. At exposure to 2 million mrem, death occurs within hours.

With medical attention, and depending on the health of the victim, people do survive intense bursts of radiation. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 134 plant workers battling the fire at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor received 80,000 to 1,600,000 mrem and, of these victims, 30 died. Experts believe that half the population would die within a month after receiving a dose of between 350,000 to 500,000 mrem over a period ranging from a few minutes to a few hours.

Thinking about recent events in Japan, it's clear that nuclear power can cause catastrophic exposure when it goes wrong. The exposure limit for a nuclear industry employee is 2,000 mrem a year, averaged over five years, according to the World Nuclear Association. But workers at the Japanese Fukushima nuclear power plant are being exposed to this level of radiation every hour in an attempt to bring the situation under control. Are these workers sure to contract cancer?

What Is The Cancer Risk From Radiation?

It's the thyroid that is most at risk of cancer following exposure to high levels of radiation. The thyroid needs iodine to regulate energy and metabolism and it absorbs this from the bloodstream.

But the body can't distinguish between regular iodine and radioactive iodine from radiation. With too much radioactive iodine, thyroid cancer can develop many years after exposure. Children and fetuses are most at risk.

You can block the uptake of radioactive iodine by taking potassium iodide pills but you shouldn't take these pills unless there is a clear risk of high exposure. According to a statement from the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, the American Thyroid Association, The Endocrine Society and the Society of Nuclear Medicine on March 18 2011, "while some radiation may be detected in the United States as a result of the nuclear reactor accident in Japan, current estimates indicate radiation levels will not be harmful to the thyroid gland or general health."

It is very difficult to calculate cancer risk and pin the blame on radiation - even when we're talking about Chernobyl. We know that radiation causes cancer through observation of patterns in the illness over many years, and through long-term studies of survivors of the Japanese atomic bomb blasts and uranium miners.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, out of a group of 10,000, 2,000 would be expected to die of cancer from non-radiation causes. If the people were exposed to 1,000 mrem of radiation in small, steady doses over a lifetime, five or six more people would die of cancer than would otherwise. So, according to these experts, just over three times the normal rate of exposure to radiation would give you a 0.06 percent greater risk over your lifetime of dying from cancer.

Of course, the difficulty in calculating risk of cancer from radiation is the huge number of variables that come into play. Short of putting people in boxes for decades after exposure and strictly controlling their environment and body chemistry, how can we know for sure what caused the cancer when it occurred? Some people smoke, others don't, some eat healthy, balanced diets and some eat junk food, others are exposed to chemicals from fertilizer, exhaust fumes, or contaminated drinking water. They all have different genes.

Estimates of the number of casualties from the Chernobyl disaster range from 4,000 from the International Atomic Energy Agency to 60,000 from the European Green Party.

In fact, researchers from the Academy of Medical Sciences of Ukraine's Research Center for Radiation Medicine in Kiev believe radiation is only one of many factors to look into when calculating the number of people affected by the explosion.


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Source of Radiation
Amount of Exposure
Medical X-ray on average
10-20 mrem
Coast to coast flight
5 mrem
Watch with radium dial
6 mrem.year
Drinking water
5 mrem/year
Concrete house
3 mrem/year
Television
1mrem/year
Nuclear power plant(normal operation at plant boundary)
0.6 mrem
Computer
0.1 mrem
Gas lantern mantle
0.003 mrem
Luggage x-ray
0.002 mrem