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Biological Effects of Radiation

Biological Effects of Radiation

The increased use of radioisotopes has led to increased concerns over the effects of these materials on biological systems (such as humans). All radioactive nuclides emit high-energy particles or electromagnetic waves. When this radiation encounters living cells, it can cause heating, break chemical bonds, or ionize molecules. The most serious biological damage results when these radioactive emissions fragment or ionize molecules.

For example, alpha and beta particles emitted from nuclear decay reactions possess much higher energies than ordinary chemical bond energies. When these particles strike and penetrate matter, they produce ions and molecular fragments that are extremely reactive. The damage this does to biomolecules in living organisms can cause serious malfunctions in normal cell processes, taxing the organism’s repair mechanisms and possibly causing illness or even death (see the figure below).

A diagram is shown which has a white sphere followed by a right-facing arrow and a large sphere composed of many smaller white and green spheres. The single sphere has impacted the larger sphere. A right-facing arrow leads from the larger sphere to a pair of smaller spheres which are collections of the same white and green spheres. A starburst pattern lies between these two spheres and has three right-facing arrows leading from it to two white spheres and a circle full of ten smaller, peach-colored circles with purple dots in their centers. An arrow leads downward from this circle to a box that contains a helical shape with a starburst near its top left side and is labeled “D N A damage.” A right-facing arrow leads from this circle to a second circle, with nine smaller, peach-colored circles with purple dots in their centers and one fully purple small circle labeled “Cancer cell.” A right-facing arrow leads to a final circle, this time full of the purple cells, that is labeled “Tumor.”

Radiation can harm biological systems by damaging the DNA of cells. If this damage is not properly repaired, the cells may divide in an uncontrolled manner and cause cancer.

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