Radioactivity Help (page 3)

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Apr 25, 2014

Units And Effects

There are several different units employed to define overall radiation exposure. The unit of radiation in the International System of units is the becquerel (Bq), representing one nuclear transition per second (1 s −1 ). Exposure to radiation is measured according to the amount necessary to produce a coulomb of electric charge, in the form of ions, in a kilogram of pure dry air. The SI unit for this quantity is the coulomb per kilogram (C/kg). An older unit, known as the roentgen (R), is equivalent to 2.58 × 10 −4 C/kg.

When matter such as human tissue is exposed to radiation, the standard unit of dose equivalent is the sievert (Sv), equivalent to 1 joule per kilogram (1 J/kg). Sometimes you’ll hear about the rem (an acronym for roentgen equivalent man); 1 rem = 0.01 Sv.

All these units make it confusing to talk about radiation quantity. To make things worse, some of the older, technically obsolete units such as the roentgen and rem have stuck around, especially in laypeople’s conversations about radiation, whereas the standard units have been slow to gain acceptance. Have you read that “more than 100 roentgens of exposure to ionizing radiation within a few hours will make a person sick” or that “people are typically exposed to a few rems during a lifetime”? Statements like these were common in civil-defense documents in the 1960s after the Cuban missile crisis, when fears of worldwide nuclear war led to the installation of air-raid sirens and fallout shelters all over the United States.

When people are exposed to excessive amounts of radiation in a short time, physical symptoms such as nausea, skin burns, fatigue, and dehydration commonly occur. In extreme cases, internal ulceration and bleeding lead to death. When people get too much radiation gradually over a period of years, cancer rates increase, and genetic mutations also occur, giving rise to increased incidence of birth defects.

Practical Uses

Radioactivity has numerous constructive applications in science, industry, and medicine. The most well known is the nuclear fission reactor, which was popular during the middle to late 1900s for generating electricity on a large scale. This type of power plant has fallen into disfavor because of the dangerous waste products it produces.

Radioactive isotopes are used in medicine to aid doctors in diagnosing illness, locating tumors inside the body, measuring rates of metabolism, and examining the structure of internal organs. Controlled doses of radiation are sometimes used in an attempt to destroy cancerous growths. In industry, radiation can be used to measure the dimensions of thin sheets of metal or plastic, to destroy bacteria and viruses that might contaminate food and other matter consumed or handled by people, and to x-ray airline baggage. Other applications include the irradiation of food, freight, and mail to protect the public against the danger of biological attack.

Geologists and biologists use radioactive dating to estimate the ages of fossil samples and archeological artifacts. The element most commonly used for this purpose is carbon. When a sample is created or a specimen is alive, there is believed to exist a certain proportion of 14C atoms among the total carbon atoms. These gradually decay into 12C atoms. By measuring the radiation intensity and determining the proportion of 14C in archeological samples, anthropologists can get an idea of how long ago the world’s great civilizations came into being, thrived, and declined. Climatologists used the technique to discover that the Earth has gone through cycles of generalized global warming and cooling.

Carbon dating has revealed that the dinosaurs suddenly and almost completely disappeared in a short span of time around 65 million years ago. By a process of elimination, it was determined that a large meteorite or comet splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico at that time. The Earth’s climate cooled off for years because of debris injected into the atmosphere following the impact that blocked much of the solar IR that normally reaches the surface. Further research has shown that there have been several major bolide impacts in the distant past, each of which has radically altered the evolutionary course of life on Earth. Based on this knowledge, most scientists agree that it is only a matter of time before another such event takes place. When—not if—it does, the consequences for humanity will be of biblical proportions.

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