Radiation Exposure and Cancer

Radiation Exposure and Cancer

Radiation is the emission (sending out) of energy from any source. X-rays are an example of radiation, but so is the light that comes from the sun and the heat that is constantly coming off our bodies.

When talking about radiation and cancer, many people think of specific kinds of radiation such as x-rays or the radiation made by nuclear reactors. But there are different types of radiation, and many of them are not linked to cancer.most skin cancers are a direct result of exposure to the UV rays in sunlight. Both basal cell and squamous cell cancers (the most common types of skin cancer) tend to be found on sun-exposed parts of the body, and their occurrence is related to lifetime sun exposure. The risk of melanoma, a more serious but less common type of skin cancer, is also related to sun exposure, although perhaps not as strongly. Skin cancer has also been linked to exposure to some artificial sources of UV.

Types of radiation

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

Gamma rays
Ultraviolet (UV) rays
Visible light
Infrared rays
Radiofrequency (radio) waves
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 remove an electron from (ionize) an atom or molecule. Ionizing radiation has enough energy to damage the DNA in cells, which in turn may lead to cancer. Gamma rays, x-rays, some high-energy UV rays, and some sub-atomic particles such as alpha particles and protons are forms of ionizing radiation.

Non-ionizing radiation is low-frequency radiation that does not have enough energy to remove electrons or directly 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.

It is important to understand the difference between these types of radiation. For example, the non-ionizing radiation given off by a cell phone or a television screen is not the same as the ionizing radiation you might get from x-rays taken in the hospital.

The types of radiation exposures discussed here include:

Ionizing radiation from sources such as medical and other man-made forms of radiation, and natural background radiation from the earth and sky.
Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from natural and man-made sources.
Some sources of non-ionizing radiation, including power lines, cell phones, TV and computer screens, and microwaves.


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