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

Industrial pollution and differences in lifestyle, the stress caused when people were forcibly relocated to cities from the rural contaminated area, stress-related lifestyle changes in response to the disaster such as drinking and smoking all count. Differences in healthcare also come into play - Chernobyl-linked medical problems may have been conditions that would otherwise have escaped attention. When these medical conditions were found by more stringent monitoring, they were blamed on the explosion.

Physicist Vadim Chumak says "when it comes to victims of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, those who did not die of acute radiation syndrome or the widespread lack of medical care after the attacks lived longer than other members of their generation because they received government-sponsored medical attention for the rest of their lives."

There is no doubt the people who lived in the exclusion zone have suffered much more than others around the world with thyroid cancer, cataracts and leukemia. The question is, just how much does radiation exposure increase cancer risk? Does the background radiation we receive everyday add up, over a lifetime, to an increased risk?

10 Common Sources of Radiation in Your House and Job

1. Television and Computer Screens

Many of us spend hours every day at work staring at a computer screen, then relax in front of a television screen in the evening. Did you know that your surfing and channel hopping exposes you to x-ray radiation?

X-rays are a form of ionizing radiation, capable of damaging living cells but according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there is no documented evidence that radiation from TV and computers has caused us any harm.

However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Devices and Radiological Health carefully sets radiation emission standards for electronic products with cathode ray tubes.

If you have a flat screen TV, you won't receive the estimated one mrem each year as flat screen TVs don't have cathode ray tubes, the device responsible for creating low-level x-rays. Computer screens contribute to an extra 0.1 mrem a year.

2. Microwave

Popping popcorn, heating up coffee and warming ready-meals are all easy with a microwave. But does a microwave give you a dose of radiation each time you set the timer?

Microwaves use high-frequency electromagnetic waves to heat food and cook it quickly. These electromagnetic waves are a form of radiation but they don't contaminate food or make it radioactive.

You may, according to the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Devices and Radiological Health, be exposed to radiation if your microwave door doesn't seal properly but injury would only occur at exposure to much larger amounts than you find in a microwave. To be safe, the Food and Drug Administration advises you to stand away from the door of your microwave when cooking.

3. Cell Phone

The health risk of cell phone use is a controversial topic. Because cell phones are relatively new, and their use has proliferated in recent years, many of us are worried about their safety.

In terms of radiation, wireless technology in cell phones uses radio frequency radiation, like microwaves. This type of radiation is non-ionizing - it doesn't harm the structure of atoms - but it creates heat at high levels.

Research linking long-term cell phone use to cancer is inconclusive and much more research is needed to clear up any questions of radiation safety.

4. Low Sodium Salt and Water Softener

Did you know your health kick was potentially radioactive? Low sodium salt substitutes are radioactive as they contain potassium chloride, which contains the radioactive potassium 40. Water softeners use potassium chloride to remove minerals from tap water.

A bag of low sodium salt substitute or water softening salts would set off the alarm at a nuclear power plant but thankfully consuming these items doesn't increase your radiation exposure.

5. Gas Lamps

Do you use gas lantern mantles when you're camping or in the work shed? If so, add an extra 0.003 mrem of exposure to your yearly total. If you camp regularly, you may receive an extra 6 mrem a year. This is because some of these lanterns use radioactive thorium 232 in the mantel to burn and create light.

6. Glossy Paper

Traditionally, your glossy magazine has used a white clay called kaolin to coat the paper and fill spaces between the fibers to create a glossy effect for text and photos. Kaolin contains elevated levels of uranium and thorium, so glossy magazines have a higher radioactive content than newspapers or other papers.

But, seriously, you would need a truck load of reading material to even trigger the sensor on a radiation monitor, so go ahead and read in peace.

7. Smoke Detector

Many smoke detectors contain low-level americium 241, a source of radioactive particles that ionize the air and make the air conductive. Smoke particles that enter the smoke detector reduce the current and cause the alarm to sound.

Because the benefits of smoke detectors far outweigh any hazards caused by radiation you'd be foolish to worry about the risk of having them in your home. Follow the instructions for the correct fitting and disposal of these alarms. 

8. Light Bulbs and Exit Signs

Modern energy-saving bulbs contain small particles of promethium 147, a radioactive material, in the sealed starter switch. The amount of radioactive material in the switch, however, is below regulatory limits for safety but you should still handle broken bulbs carefully to minimize exposure.

Emergency exit signs in the office, school and store contain tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, that creates a self-powered light source for use without electricity. A damaged sign could release tritium - it will be quickly dispersed into the air but you shouldn't handle it.

9. Ceramics, Glass and Granite

Antique glassware, especially the type prized for its yellow or greenish glow, contains quantities of uranium. Ceramic tiles and pottery can also contain elevated levels of naturally-occurring uranium, thorium or potassium.

Your granite countertop can also release radon into the air but it's much less than the Environmental Protection Agency says is safe. Before you remove your counter tops and send your tableware back to the antique shop, the Environmental Protection Agency says it's also safe to prepare food, eat and drink from any of these ceramic or glass containers.

10. Fertilizer

Fertilizers are designed to provide plants with varying levels of potassium, phosphorous and nitrogen and they are radioactive for two reasons - potassium is naturally radioactive, and phosphate ore from which phosphorus is derived contains elevated levels of uranium and radium. But the radioactivity absorbed by the plants is low and experts maintain that it is safe and doesn't harm the plant.

In conclusion, the danger from nuclear fall-out following a reactor meltdown or explosion is very real for those close to the catastrophe. For those who remain out of the exclusion zone, radiation is a fact of everyday life that shouldn't make you lose sleep.

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