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Biological effects of radioactivity

Unfortunately the early workers with radioactivity did not know of its dangers; Marie Curie, for instance, died of leukaemia, a disease of the blood produced by prolonged exposure to radiation. With all types of radioactivity shielding is important, the thickness and type of shielding depending on the type of radiation.

Alpha particles are not penetrating and aluminium sheet will stop them. Their only biological effects are to the surface of the skin, with the production of radiation 'burns'. The term burns is perhaps misleading - although the temperature rise produced is only a few thousandths of a degree, the bums do not heal since the molecular structure of the cells has been destroyed

The penetration of beta particles is rather greater than alpha particles and thicker aluminium is needed to stop these. Gamma radiation is intensely penetrating, and many centimetres of lead are required to reduce the intensity from a large source to safe levels. Since gamma-radiation obeys the inverse square law in air, the best thing is to get as far away from a gamma-source as possible. Gamma-radiation also affects the internal organs of the body due to its high penetrating power.

Neutron radiation presents special problems. Because neutrons are uncharged they produce few ions and so have a relatively long range in body tissue, but because of their large mass they cause considerable damage when they collide with living cells. A neutron has about the same mass as a hydrogen nucleus, and since the body contains large numbers of hydrogen nuclei in its cells the neutrons lose a lot of energy and thus the cells are severely damaged. For the same reason neutrons are best stopped by materials containing a large amount of hydrogen atoms such as paraffin wax

Radiation can cause immediate damage such as radiation burns out but possibly its long-term effects are even more serious. Besides leukaemia, it causes cancer and genetic damage since it affects the rapidly dividing cells in the body, such as those in the liver and the reproductive organs. Radiation can also damage the eye, causing cataracts which destroy its clarity. For these reasons radioactive sources must always be handled carefully and sensibly.

© Keith Gibbs 2011