Physics » Medical Applications of Nuclear Physics » Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation

Risk Versus Benefit

Risk versus Benefit

Medical doses of radiation are also limited. Diagnostic doses are generally low and have further lowered with improved techniques and faster films. With the possible exception of routine dental x-rays, radiation is used diagnostically only when needed so that the low risk is justified by the benefit of the diagnosis. Chest x-rays give the lowest doses—about 0.1 mSv to the tissue affected, with less than 5 percent scattering into tissues that are not directly imaged.

Other x-ray procedures range upward to about 10 mSv in a CT scan, and about 5 mSv (0.5 rem) per dental x-ray, again both only affecting the tissue imaged. Medical images with radiopharmaceuticals give doses ranging from 1 to 5 mSv, usually localized. One exception is the thyroid scan using \({}^{\text{131}}\text{I}\). Because of its relatively long half-life, it exposes the thyroid to about 0.75 Sv. The isotope \({}^{\text{123}}\text{I}\) is more difficult to produce, but its short half-life limits thyroid exposure to about 15 mSv.

PhET Explorations: Alpha Decay

Watch alpha particles escape from a polonium nucleus, causing radioactive alpha decay. See how random decay times relate to the half life.

Alpha Decay

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