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Here are some basic numbers to use as a guide (μSv)

10 μSv – The average radiation you received everyday from the nature background radiation

40 μSv – The radiation you receive by taking a flight from New York to L.A.

100 μSv – The radiation you receive during a dental x-ray

800 μSv – Total radiation dose at Three-Mile Island for the duration of the accident

3,000 μSv – Radiation dose from a mammogram

3,600 μSv – Average radiation a US citizen receives in a year from all sources

50,000 μSv – Maximum allowable yearly occupational dose (USA)

100,000 μSv – Lowest yearly dose likely linked to increased cancer risk

2,000,000 μSv – Severe radiation poisoning (sometimes fatal)

Hourly dose examples

0.34 μSv/h – Average individual background radiation dose for Americans

1.6 μSv/h – The hourly doses in the city of Fukushima as of May 25, 2011.

0.062 μSv/h – The hourly doses in Tokyo as of May 25, 2011.

5 µSv/h – Highest dose rate measured in Finland during the Chernobyl disaster

4.3×108 μSv/h – Highest reported level during Fukushima accident for the gas/steam   inside the primary containment (drywell) of reactor unit 1 on August 19, 2011




Radiation Exposure and Cancer

What is radiation?

Radiation is the emission of energy from any source. When talking about radiation and cancer, we are talking about x-rays, natural background radiation from the earth and sky and the radiation made by nuclear reactors (Gamma rays).

Types of radiation

Radiation exists across a spectrum from very high-energy (high-frequency) radiation to very low-energy (low-frequency) radiation. From highest to lowest energy, the main forms of radiation are:

  1. Gamma rays
  2. X-rays
  3. Ultraviolet (UV) rays
  4. Visible light
  5. Infrared rays
  6. Microwaves
  7. Radiofrequency (radio) waves
  8. Extremely low-frequency (ELF) radiation

An important distinction that affects the health risks from radiation is whether the energy is ionizing or non-ionizing.

Ionizing radiation is high-frequency radiation that has enough energy to ionize an atom or molecule, damaging the DNA in cells. This in turn may lead to cancer. Gamma rays, x-rays, some high-energy UV rays, and alpha particles and protons are forms of ionizing radiation.

Non-ionizing radiation is low-frequency radiation that does not have enough energy to damage DNA. Low-energy UV rays, visible light, infrared rays, microwaves, and radio waves are all forms of non-ionizing radiation. Aside from UV rays, these types of radiation are not known to increase cancer risk.


Sources of ionizing radiation

Natural background radiation comes from cosmic rays from our solar system and radioactive elements normally present in the soil. This is the major contributor to worldwide radiation exposure.

Medical radiation comes in the form of diagnostic x-rays and other tests, as well as from radiation therapy. Radiation therapy is currently used to treat some types of cancer and involves dosages many thousand times higher than those used in diagnostic x-rays.

Non-medical, man-made radiation can come from workplaces and other sources, such as nuclear tests and facilities, consumer products, food irradiation, airport security scanners and Ultraviolet (UV) Radiation.

Does ionizing radiation cause cancer?

Ionizing radiation is a proven human carcinogen (cancer causing agent). The evidence for this comes from many different sources, including studies of atomic bomb survivors in Japan, people exposed during the Chernobyl nuclear accident, people treated with high doses of radiation for cancer and other conditions, and people exposed to high levels of radiation at work, such as uranium miners.

Most studies on radiation and cancer risk have looked at people exposed to very high doses of radiation in the settings above. It is much more difficult to measure the increase in cancer risk that might come from lower levels of radiation exposure. Most studies have not been able to detect an increased risk of cancer among people exposed to low levels of radiation. For example, people living at high altitudes, who are exposed to more natural background radiation from cosmic rays than people living at sea level, do not have noticeably higher cancer rates.

Still, most scientists and regulatory agencies agree that even small doses of ionizing radiation increase cancer risk, although by a very small amount. In general, the risk of cancer from radiation exposure increases as the dose of radiation increases. Likewise, the lower the exposure is, the smaller the increase in risk. But there is no threshold below which ionizing radiation is thought to be completely safe.

Types of cancer linked to ionizing radiation

Ionizing radiation increases the risk of certain types of cancer more than others.

The thyroid gland and bone marrow are particularly sensitive to radiation. Leukemia, a type of cancer that arises in the bone marrow is the most common radiation-induced type. Leukemia may appear as early as a few years after radiation exposure.

Other types of cancer can also result from radiation exposure, although they may take longer to develop (usually at least 10 to 15 years). Some of the other forms of cancer most strongly linked to radiation exposure in studies include:

  • Lung cancer
  • Skin cancer
  • Thyroid cancer
  • Multiple myeloma
  • Breast cancer
  • Stomach cancer

These are not necessarily the only types of cancer that may be linked to radiation, however.

The types of cancer linked to radiation are also affected by the part of the body that is exposed. For example, people who undergo pelvic radiation therapy would not be expected to have higher rates of cancer in the head and neck because those areas would not be directly exposed during the treatment.

Other factors may also play a role in how likely a person exposed to radiation is to develop cancer. Age is one such factor. Children’s growing bodies are more sensitive to radiation than adults. A person may also have gene changes that make their cells more vulnerable to radiation damage, which might in turn raise their risk more than in someone without these gene changes.

Who is protecting you?

The responsibility for protecting the public from radiation is distributed among several federal agencies and the state governments. There are three federal agencies with primary responsibility for protecting people and the environment from harmful exposure to radiation. These are the Environmental Protection Agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Department of Energy.

U.S. Environmental   Protection Agency (EPA)
EPA primarily sets protective standards (limits) on exposure to radiation that other federal agencies and the states use in developing radiation protection regulations.
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission   (NRC)
NRC regulates civilian nuclear power and licenses the use of radioactive materials.
U.S. Department of Energy   (DOE)
DOE oversees the production and management of nuclear weapons and is in charge of cleaning up federal lands contaminated with weapons-related radioactive   contamination. DOE also manages national laboratories that conduct nuclear research.

Other federal agencies have specific and important roles. For example:

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Center for Devices and Radiological Health
FDA’s CDRH regulates the manufacture of radiation emitting devices, such as cell phones, x-ray machines, and medical devices.
U.S. Department   of Transportation (DOT), Office of Hazardous Materials Safety
DOT’s OHMS develops the national safety program that minimizes the risk to life and property inherent in commercial transportation of hazardous materials.
U.S. Federal   Communications Commission (FCC)
The FCC regulates all nongovernmental sources of radiofrequency radiation including radar and radiofrequency transmitters.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
DHS focuses on preparedness, prevention, and response related to radiological emergencies and preventing the entry of radioactive materials through our ports.

In addition, each state has its own radiation control program. Many have been delegated federal authority for state implementation of federal programs.

How can you protect yourself?

Radiation is colorless, odorless and tasteless. It is impossible to tell whether you are being exposed and, if so, to how much, unless you have a Geiger counter or similar device. If you do detect radiation by using Gerger Counter,  three basic concepts apply to protecting yourself and your family from all types of ionizing radiation: time, distance, and shielding.

Basic Concepts of Radiation Protection

  • Time: The amount of radiation exposure increases as the time spent near the source of radiation increases.
  • Distance: The farther away people are from a radiation source, the less their exposure
  •  Shielding: The greater the thickness and density of shielding around a radiation source, the smaller the exposure.


More information can be found on following Web sites.

American Cancer Society

Web site:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Web site:

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Web site:

National Cancer Institute (NCI)
Web site:

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
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