Ionizing Radiation Fact Sheet (cont.)
Any release of radioactive material is a potential source of radiation exposure to the population. In addition to exposure from external sources, radiation exposure can occur internally by ingesting, inhaling, injecting, or absorbing radioactive materials. Both external and internal sources may irradiate the whole body or a portion of the body. The amount of radiation exposure is usually expressed in a unit called millirem (mrem). In the United States, the average person is exposed to an effective dose equivalent of approximately 360 mrem (whole-body exposure) per year from all sources (NCRP Report No. 93).
Results of Exposure
Ionizing radiation affects people by depositing energy in body tissue, which can cause cell damage or cell death. In some cases there may be no effect. In other cases, the cell may survive but become abnormal, either temporarily or permanently, or an abnormal cell may become malignant. Large doses of radiation can cause extensive cellular damage and result in death. With smaller doses, the person or particular irradiated organ(s) may survive, but the cells are damaged, increasing the chance of cancer. The extent of the damage depends upon the total amount of energy absorbed, the time period and dose rate of exposure, and the particular organ(s) exposed.
Evidence of injury from low or moderate doses of radiation may not show up for months or even years. For leukemia, the minimum time period between the radiation exposure and the appearance of disease (latency period) is 2 years. For solid tumors, the latency period is more than 5 years. The types of effects and their probability of occurrence can depend on whether the exposure occurs over a large part of a person's lifespan (chronic) or during a very short portion of the lifespan (acute). It should be noted that all of the health effects of exposure to radiation can also occur in unexposed people due to other causes. Also, there is no detectable difference in appearance between radiation induced cancers and genetic effects and those due to other causes.
Chronic exposure is continuous or intermittent exposure to low levels of radiation over a long period of time. Chronic exposure is considered to produce only effects that can be observed some time following initial exposure. These include genetic effects and other effects such as cancer, precancerous lesions, benign tumors, cataracts, skin changes, and congenital defects.
Acute exposure is exposure to a large, single dose of radiation, or a series of doses, for a short period of time. Large acute doses can result from accidental or emergency exposures or from special medical procedures (radiation therapy). In most cases, a large acute exposure to radiation can cause both immediate and delayed effects. For humans and other mammals, acute exposure, if large enough, can cause rapid development of radiation sickness, evidenced by gastrointestinal disorders, bacterial infections, hemorrhaging, anemia, loss of body fluids, and electrolyte imbalance. Delayed biological effects can include cataracts, temporary sterility, cancer, and genetic effects. Extremely high levels of acute radiation exposure can result in death within a few hours, days or weeks.
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