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Effects of Long-term Radiation Exposure On the Human Body

Effects of Long-term Radiation Exposure on the Human Body

The effects of radiation depend on the type, energy, and location of the radiation source, and the length of exposure. As shown in the figure below, the average person is exposed to background radiation, including cosmic rays from the sun and radon from uranium in the ground (see the lesson on Radon Exposure); radiation from medical exposure, including CAT scans, radioisotope tests, X-rays, and so on; and small amounts of radiation from other human activities, such as airplane flights (which are bombarded by increased numbers of cosmic rays in the upper atmosphere), radioactivity from consumer products, and a variety of radionuclides that enter our bodies when we breathe (for example, carbon-14) or through the food chain (for example, potassium-40, strontium-90, and iodine-131).

A bar graph titled “Radiation Doses and Regulatory Limits, open parenthesis, in Millirems, close parenthesis” is shown. The y-axis is labeled “Doses in Millirems” and has values from 0 to 5000 with a break between 1000 and 5000 to indicate a different scale to the top of the graph. The y-axis is labeled corresponding to each bar. The first bar, measured to 5000 on the y-axis, is drawn in red and is labeled “Annual Nuclear Worker Doses Limit, open parenthesis, N R C, close parenthesis.” The second bar, measured to 1000 on the y-axis, is drawn in blue and is labeled “Whole Body C T” while the third bar, measured to 620 on the y-axis, is drawn in blue and is labeled “Average U period S period Annual Dose.” The fourth bar, measured to 310 on the y-axis, is drawn in blue and is labeled “U period S period Natural Background Dose” while the fifth bar, measured to 100 on the y-axis and drawn in red reads “Annual Public Dose Limit, open parenthesis, N R C, close parenthesis.” The sixth bar, measured to 40 on the y-axis, is drawn in blue and is labeled “From Your Body” while the seventh bar, measured to 30 on the y-axis and drawn in blue reads “Cosmic rays.” The eighth bar, measured to 4 on the y-axis, is drawn in blue and is labeled “Safe Drinking Water Limit, open parenthesis, E P A, close parenthesis” while the ninth bar, measured to 2.5 on the y-axis and drawn in red reads “Trans Atlantic Flight.” A legend on the graph shows that red means “Dose Limit From N R C dash licensed activity” while blue means “Radiation Doses.”

The total annual radiation exposure for a person in the US is about 620 mrem. The various sources and their relative amounts are shown in this bar graph. (source: U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

A short-term, sudden dose of a large amount of radiation can cause a wide range of health effects, from changes in blood chemistry to death. Short-term exposure to tens of rems of radiation will likely cause very noticeable symptoms or illness; a dose of about 500 rems is estimated to have a 50% probability of causing the death of the victim within 30 days of exposure. Exposure to radioactive emissions has a cumulative effect on the body during a person’s lifetime, which is another reason why it is important to avoid any unnecessary exposure to radiation. Health effects of short-term exposure to radiation are shown in the table below.

Health Effects of Radiation
Exposure (rem)Health EffectTime to Onset (without treatment)
5–10changes in blood chemistry
50nauseahours
55fatigue
70vomiting
75hair loss2–3 weeks
90diarrhea
100hemorrhage
400possible deathwithin 2 months
1000destruction of intestinal lining
 internal bleeding
 death1–2 weeks
2000damage to central nervous system
 loss of consciousness;minutes
 deathhours to days

It is impossible to avoid some exposure to ionizing radiation. We are constantly exposed to background radiation from a variety of natural sources, including cosmic radiation, rocks, medical procedures, consumer products, and even our own atoms. We can minimize our exposure by blocking or shielding the radiation, moving farther from the source, and limiting the time of exposure.

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