Oppenheimer: The Dangers of Radioactivity on Health
Here at e-Surgery, we believe that education is the best way of reducing our chances of getting ill, and given the latest blockbuster film ‘Oppenheimer’ is getting people talking, we thought we’d take a look into the potential dangers of radioactivity on health.
‘Oppenheimer’ has brought the story of a man that many aren’t aware of, back into the public consciousness. The name Oppenheimer has been etched into the world’s history books and school textbooks. His impact on science resulted in a major shift in warfare and military operations, most of which is still prominent today.
Who Was Oppenheimer?
Robert Oppenheimer was a theoretical physicist who lived from 1904 – 1967 in the United States. He attended Harvard and studied Chemistry, a subject he had shown signs of excelling in from an extremely early age. He has been given the title of ‘the father of the atomic bomb’ as he was most notably the lead scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project during the second world war, which resulted in the creation of the world’s first nuclear weapons that were then used in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki which would see a devastating end to WW2.
Oppenheimer lived the rest of his life with immense guilt for his involvement in the creation of weapons that have impacted the lives of so many and put the future of humanity into the hands of a few world leaders that could change their fate at any point. Overall, Oppenheimer was a genius who lived to see his own ability be used for something he would never have thought possible.
The Impact of The Manhattan Project
The aftermath of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was huge, These bombings resulted in the immediate deaths of approximately 140,000 people in Hiroshima and 70,000 people in Nagasaki, though these numbers are purely speculation. Many more would go on to die in the coming weeks, months and years due to injuries and the long-term effects of radiation exposure.
The extreme loss of life damaged the Japanese people beyond comprehension.
The people that survived the initial blasts suffered severe burns, injuries from the buildings that were destroyed and radiation poisoning from the blast. The long-term health effects and dangers of radioactivity on health, such as cancer and other illnesses, continued to impact survivors and the generations that followed them.
The Long-term Impact
In the months and years that followed the end of the war and the dropping of the bombs in Japan, the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would discover that they might not have escaped the impact of the bombings simply by leaving what was left of their cities. Many people would develop illnesses like Leukaemia and Multiple Myeloma as a result of the high levels of radiation their bodies were exposed to.
Types of Radiation & The Dangers of Radioactivity on Health
So, what exactly is radiation? Radiation is the name given to the release of energy in the form of waves or particles. It can happen naturally, but it can be created by humans, Oppenheimer is the most obvious example.
When something changes at an atomic level, which isn’t possible to see with just the human eye, it can release energy, this is the waves and particles just mentioned! Radiation is energy which can interreact with everything it encounters.
Now we know that’s a simplistic description of what radiation is, as there are many forms of radiation to talk about, so we thought it’d be best to discuss them in more detail to better understand what they are and where they can be found.
Ionising radiation is a type of energy that is strong enough to knock electrons out of atoms, making them charged particles called ions. The process of ionisation has various effects on what it encounters, as it can disrupt chemical bonds within molecules, this can mean the changes in their structure can affect the functions of biological systems, such as the human body. Ionising radiation is known to damage genetic material like DNA, so it’s not something to be taken lightly. Let’s take a look at the types of ionising radiation and the possible dangers of radioactivity on health
Alpha particles are small particles made up of two protons and two neutrons. When certain unstable elements like uranium and radon break down, they release these particles. Because alpha particles are bigger and carry a positive charge, they can only travel a short distance through the air or through our bodies. Usually, they can only go a few centimetres in the air or a few millimetres in our bodies (thankfully).
If people were to breathe in or swallow these particles, they could be harmful to the body. If you work in or around radiation, it’s important to remain aware of the release of alpha particles as they can impact your health.
Beta particles are less damaging than alpha particles, however, they are more penetrative. This means that the impact of exposure to beta particles is a lot less detrimental than that of alpha particles. Beta particles will not be able to impact your tissue or DNA as the ionisations that they produce are spread out further. The particles can be intercepted by clothing as well as other materials such as aluminium can block the transference of Beta particles.
Gamma rays are highly energetic electromagnetic radiation emitted from atomic nuclei during radioactive decay or nuclear reactions, the first responders to the Chernobyl reactor explosion were exposed to extreme levels of gamma rays, in which all the firefighters later died from the exposure, showing the dangers of radioactivity on health. Gamma rays have the highest energy among electromagnetic waves and can penetrate through most materials. Gamma rays do have positive uses though, including cancer radiotherapy and the sterilisation of medical equipment.
X-rays are a type of ionising radiation commonly used in medical imaging, usually, people get X-Rays when they break a body part. They possess higher energy than visible light and can pass through body tissues, allowing doctors to see the damage done and determine the severity of potential issues or injuries.
Although you might not think it, we come across Ionising radiation in our everyday lives. It can be found in water, the soil and our vegetation, so there really is no escaping it. But don’t worry, the amounts we are exposed to are minimal and cause no hard to our bodies. Radiation can be scary as it’s unseen to the human eye, but luckily there are experts who prioritise safety when dealing with high levels of dangerous radiation.
Non-Ionising radiation differs from ionising radiation as it is the radiation emitted from things we are often exposed to in our daily lives. It does not have the power to affect matter to the same level as ionising radiation, but it can heat up objects, the main example of this would be the microwave in most people’s kitchens. Let’s take a look at the types of non-ionising radiation and the possible dangers of radioactivity on health
People are exposed to UV rays on a daily basis as they are emitted by the sun and are the cause of burnt skin. You can also be exposed to UV rays through the use of tanning beds, which are known to increase the risk of the development of skin cancers which is one of the many dangers of radioactivity on health.
Infrared radiation is known for its ability to generate heat when it is absorbed by objects. It is mostly used for things like thermal imaging, remote controls like your Sky remote or Firestick, as well as for heating processes and night vision technology, which is most likely where you first heard of infrared, go on, admit it…
Exposure to high amounts of radio frequency can sometimes result in tissue damage due to the heat that is produced by radio frequency. This is because the body isn’t able to cope with the high level of heat that is generated. Don’t worry though, the levels of frequency you are exposed to, such as car radios, TVs, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi all emit levels far lower than what is needed to cause you serious harm. So the dangers of radioactivity on health are minimal here.
The clue’s in the name for this one. As you might have guessed, microwaves are what create the heat needed to heat up the food you place in your microwave oven. Microwaves refer to a form of electromagnetic radiation that falls within the range of the electromagnetic spectrum between radio waves and infrared radiation. They are also used in telecommunications, where they are employed for wireless communication, satellite transmissions, and radar systems.
If you feel as though you may have experienced excessive radiation exposure or are experiencing symptoms of radiation poisoning, it is vital that you contact your GP or contact NHS 111 as soon as possible. If you are unsure, it is always best to seek medical advice from a professional. We hope this article helped you understand the dangers of radioactivity on health.
For more minor medical issues, you can use e-Surgery’s ‘Ask A Pharmacist‘ service, where we offer free, professional medical advice, without having to speak to a pharmacist over the counter at your local pharmacy.
We hope you learnt as much as we did about the dangers of radioactivity on health. Make sure to check out our other health related articles in the ‘Health Hub‘ section on e-Surgery.com