What Is X-ray Radiation?
X-rays are high energy particles which pass through matter at speeds up to around 300 miles per second (500 km/s). They are produced when certain materials such as lead or uranium undergo nuclear reactions. These radioactive elements emit alpha particle radiation, which is very energetic and damaging to living tissue. However, it can also produce other effects including causing DNA damage and cell death.
The most common type of x-ray used in medical treatment is called a “gamma” ray. Gamma rays are created when cosmic rays from outer space interact with atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere. Cosmic rays come from all directions and travel at speeds up to 100 million miles per hour (160 million km/h) or faster. The speed of these particles causes them to break up into two types: protons and neutrons, which then release their energy as gamma radiation.
Gamma rays are extremely dangerous to human life. Their energies range from 10 billion electron volts (GeV) to billions of GeV.
Gamma rays can also create secondary effects such as alpha particles, electrons and positrons. Alpha particles are unstable and may enter your body through inhalation or ingestion of food or drink containing foods containing milk products, cheese, eggs, fish and meat. The number of alpha particles released depends on the amount of oxygen present in the air. When the air is highly oxygenated, as many as 4,000 can enter your body if you are close to the source of the incident.
Each particle has an energy level of 5 MeV, which means that when it reaches a human cell it can easily cause damage.
Positrons are the antimatter equivalent to electrons and will also seek out electrons in order to annihilate. This causes gamma rays as the two collide, although each has only an impact energy of 0.511 MeV. If these rays enter your body, they can cause cell damage and even a form of cell death called apoptosis.
Positrons are commonly found in anti-cancer drugs, such as fluorodeoxyuracil (popularly known as 5-FU).
The first gamma rays were detected by Paul Villard, a French physicist, in 1900. He originally called them “N” rays because he believed that they were a new type of radiation. However, it was soon discovered that N rays did not exist and were in fact simply gamma rays with a wavelength of about 5,000 Angstroms.
Why Are They Used?
There are many reasons why gamma rays are used in medicine. One of the most common is to take a radiograph of a patient’s bones or body tissue. However, this is a relatively “low dose” method as the rays are focused on a specific part of the body and only expose that area to low level radiation. Other types of radiography devices use different types of radiation, such as X-rays or electron beams.
In some cases, gamma rays are used in cancer treatment. These rays can either be injected into the body or taken in as radioactive drug. They kill or damage the cells that they come into contact with, either by damaging the DNA or by directly breaking down the cell membranes. In this way, cancerous cells are often more susceptible to gamma ray treatment than healthy ones as their membranes are weak and they have dysfunctional DNA.
Alpha rays or beams can also be used to treat various types of cancer.
Finally, gamma rays can be used for sterilization. Due to their high energy level, they can easily kill microbes and bacteria, making them ideal for sterilizing medical equipment.
As with many types of radiation, there are both short-term and long-term effects of exposure to gamma rays that should be carefully considered.
The main immediate risk is that they may cause burns. This is usually only a risk if you get a very large dose of gamma rays within a very short space of time. Even though gamma rays don’t cause immediate skin burns like x-rays, they can still cause burns to deeper layers of skin if they are strong enough.
The main long-term risk of exposure to gamma rays is the increased risk of cancer. This will depend on the level of radiation you’ve been exposed to and the area of your body that’s been exposed. The main concern is exposure to your bone marrow as this can lead to leukemia.
As with all types of radiation, children and developing fetuses are at a higher risk of injury and should be kept away from any potentially dangerous sources of gamma rays.
How Can You Protect Yourself?
The obvious solution to protect yourself from gamma radiation is to avoid it altogether. This can be done in two ways.
The first and most obvious way is to avoid any potential sources of gamma rays. As mentioned earlier, this primarily means staying away from things like atomic bombs or other weapons that use this technology. It also means avoiding things like medical scans or other equipment that may produce a concentrated beam of gamma rays.
The second method is to keep yourself as far away from the source as possible. As mentioned earlier, gamma rays loose their energy over distance. If you double the distance between yourself and the radiation source then you will only receive half as much exposure. Therefore, the best way to protect yourself is to move away from the location entirely.
Again, while both of these methods are suitable for protection from gamma rays they do not provide an immediate solution should you discover that you are in danger. In this situation, you may need to use less desirable methods of protection.
The most basic form of protection is shielding. This can be done using anything from a few sheets of paper to several feet of lead. The thickness and material of the shielding will determine how effective it is as some radiation types are more easily blocked than others.
The other main form of protection is distance. As mentioned before, the farther you are away from the radiation source the less exposure you will receive. For gamma rays this only applies up to a point as you can still be exposed to harmful levels of radiation even if you are a long way away. This is due to the fact that gamma rays have been known to be able to pass through people and objects.
Real Life Examples
As mentioned in the introduction, gamma radiation is created naturally all the time as a result of radioactive materials breaking down. The most common example is within our sun. There are also small amounts of gamma radiation found in rocks and minerals throughout the earth.
In terms of man-made sources there are a few of these that could be considered a potential hazard. The most obvious example is a nuclear power plant where a large reactor releases radioactive particles as a normal part of the energy production process. Another example is the detonation of a nuclear bomb where a huge amount of gamma rays are released in one large blast.
One rather interesting example is oil exploration. When oil is heated to produce oil wells a certain amount of gamma radiation is produced along with excess carbon dioxide and methane. In this situation, the radiation is not dangerous in any meaningful way even if you work in an oil rig everyday for your entire life.
As far as health effects go, here are some common examples:
A large number of cancer cases among people living close to a nuclear power plant.
Radiological contamination in the surrounding area of a nuclear bomb detonation.
Long term exposure to a hazardous waste dump resulting in high rates of cancer among the local population.
Long term exposure to a medical facility such as a hospital where medical equipment is leaking Gamma rays.
Living near a fossil fuel power plant. While the actual radiation exposure is low, the emission of carbon dioxide and methane can have a negative impact on your health over time.
Given what we have learned about gamma rays, are they dangerous to your health?
The simple answer is yes.
Given what we have learned about gamma rays, can you protect yourself from them?
Given enough distance or enough shielding, yes you can protect yourself.
Gamma rays can only be partially blocked by lead and yet they are still harmful. Not something you want to be around on a regular basis. Only use gamma rays if you absolutely have to.
Sources & references used in this article:
What you need to know about colorectal cancer by C Sargent, D Murphy – Nursing2019, 2003 – journals.lww.com
Learn to live through cancer: what you need to know and do by SB Fleishman – 2011 – books.google.com
Enhanced x-ray irradiation-induced cancer cell damage by gold nanoparticles treated by a new synthesis method of polyethylene glycol modification by CJ Liu, CH Wang, CC Chien, TY Yang, ST Chen… – …, 2008 – iopscience.iop.org
What You Need to Know About Caring for Breast Cancer Survivors by B High, S Bohnenkamp, S Mulligan – Medsurg Nursing, 2019 – search.proquest.com