The study of the way in which exposure to radiation can affect living matter lies at the boundary of physics and biology. Even with recent advances in scientific understanding, our grasp of this field remains incomplete and empirical. To predict the effect of radiation on a person would require at least the knowledge of the exact doses of radioactivity to which each of his organs is subjected. This information is rarely available, even more when the effect occurs years after an exposure, which is the general case. It is then impossible to link the effect with this bygone exposure since the effect may often be attributed to many other causes. When it comes to cancer, unfortunately, such definitive links can almost never be made.
Radiation can be beneficial to a living organism if it affects only sick or harmful cells. When it starts to touch healthy cells, however, it can have harmful consequences. Fortunately for us, most living matter has the ability to regenerate after being exposed to weak doses of radiation. For stronger doses, however, the effects are almost always irreversible.
A huge range of factors are involved when it comes to determining how harmful exposure can be. The nature of the radiation, the amount absorbed and the part of the body affected are all important in determining the eventual consequences.
In the case of heavy doses (which can be beneficial in localised applications: as is common in radiation therapy) the effects can be clearly defined, and are referred to as deterministic.
These consequences become less clear when discussing doses of the same strength as naturally-occurring radiation. Such exposure is almost always harmless but can, in rare cases, lead to problems such as cancer. The low probability associated with such negative outcomes has led to them being referred to as probabilistic.
When discussing a large exposed population, it would be impossible to attribute the appearance of an individual cancer to any particular cause. The observation of noticeable (statistically significant) phenomenon, however, would be a good indication of causality.
Internal radiation is the most harmful, as radioactive atoms trapped in the body can stay there for years, working over very small distances. Such an exposure is much more dangerous than external radiation, which stops having an effect as soon as one is no longer exposed to the source.
The comparative risk posed by radioactive substances is tested by measuring their potential radiotoxicity – a measure of the dose that would be felt if the sample were to become assimilated by a human being. For the same amount of ingested radioactive sample, heavy alpha ray emitters are some 10,000 times more radiotoxic than the lightweight beta emitters such as tritium.
It is important, however, not to confuse radiotoxicity with the real danger posed by a substance. The danger posed by a more radiotoxic sample is only greater if one were to swallow it or breathe it in. As long as radioactive elements remain outside of our bodies, radiotoxicity does not provide relevant information as to comparative danger. Plutonium, for instance, which has a very high radiotoxicity reading, is a comparatively low-risk element due to the unlikelihood of our ever coming in contact with it.
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