Gross Alpha
Gross Beta
Iodine-131
Iodine-129
Cesium-137
Cobalt-60
Strontium-90
Plutonium-238
Plutonium-239/240
Tritium
Americium-241
Particulate Matter
Ionizing Radiation
Technetium-99
Neptunium-237
Heavy Metals
Volatile Organics

Ionizing radiation is radiation that has sufficient energy to remove electrons from atoms. It is commonly referred to simply as radiation. One source of radiation is the nuclei of unstable atoms. For these radioactive atoms (also referred to as radionuclides or radioisotopes) to become more stable, the nuclei eject or emit subatomic particles and high-energy photons (gamma rays). This process is called radioactive decay. Unstable isotopes of radium, radon, uranium, and thorium, for example, exist naturally. Others are continually being made naturally or by human activities such as the splitting of atoms in a nuclear reactor. Either way, they release ionizing radiation. The major types of radiation emitted as a result of spontaneous decay are alpha and beta particles, and gamma rays. X rays, another major type of radiation, arise from processes outside of the nucleus.

Sources of Ionizing Radiation

Natural Radiation

Humans are primarily exposed to natural radiation from the sun, cosmic rays, and naturally occurring radioactive elements found in the earth's crust. Radon, which emanates from the ground, is another important source of natural radiation. Cosmic rays from space include energetic protons, electrons, gamma rays, and x rays. The primary radioactive elements found in the earth's crust are uranium, thorium, and potassium, and their radioactive derivatives. These elements emit alpha and beta particles, or gamma rays.

Manmade Radiation

Radiation is used on an ever increasing scale in medicine, dentistry, and industry. Main users of manmade radiation include: medical facilities such as hospitals and pharmaceutical facilities; research and teaching institutions; nuclear reactors and their supporting facilities such as uranium mills and fuel preparation plants; and Federal facilities involved in nuclear weapons production as part of their normal operation.

Many of these facilities generate some radioactive waste; and some release a controlled amount of radiation into the environment. Radioactive materials are also used in common consumer products such as digital and luminous-dial wristwatches, ceramic glazes, artificial teeth, and smoke detectors.

Health Effects of Radiation Exposure

Ionizing radiation affects people by depositing energy in body tissue, which can cause cell damage or cell death. In some cases there may be no effect. In other cases, the cell may survive but become abnormal, either temporarily or permanently, or an abnormal cell may become malignant. Large doses of radiation can cause extensive cellular damage and result in death. With smaller doses, the person or particular irradiated organ(s) may survive, but the cells are damaged, increasing the chance of cancer. The extent of the damage depends upon the total amount of energy absorbed, the time period and dose rate of exposure, and the particular organ(s) exposed.

Evidence of injury from low or moderate doses of radiation may not show up for months or even years. For leukemia, the minimum time period between the radiation exposure and the appearance of disease (latency period) is 2 years. For solid tumors, the latency period is more than 5 years. The types of effects and their probability of occurrence can depend on whether the exposure occurs over a large part of a person's lifespan (chronic) or during a very short portion of the lifespan (acute). It should be noted that all of the health effects of exposure to radiation can also occur in unexposed people due to other causes. Also, there is no detectable difference in appearance between radiation induced cancers and genetic effects and those due to other causes.

Chronic Exposure

Chronic exposure is continuous or intermittent exposure to low levels of radiation over a long period of time. Chronic exposure is considered to produce only effects that can be observed some time following initial exposure. These include genetic effects and other effects such as cancer, precancerous lesions, benign tumors, cataracts, skin changes, and congenital defects.

Acute Exposure

Acute exposure is exposure to a large, single dose of radiation, or a series of doses, for a short period of time. Large acute doses can result from accidental or emergency exposures or from special medical procedures (radiation therapy). In most cases, a large acute exposure to radiation can cause both immediate and delayed effects. For humans and other mammals, acute exposure, if large enough, can cause rapid development of radiation sickness, evidenced by gastrointestinal disorders, bacterial infections, hemorrhaging, anemia, loss of body fluids, and electrolyte imbalance. Delayed biological effects can include cataracts, temporary sterility, cancer, and genetic effects. Extremely high levels of acute radiation exposure can result in death within a few hours, days or weeks.

Risks of Health Effects

All people are chronically exposed to background levels of radiation present in the environment. Many people also receive additional chronic exposures and/or relatively small acute exposures. For populations receiving such exposures, the primary concern is that radiation could increase the risk of cancers or harmful genetic effects.

The probability of a radiation-caused cancer or genetic effect is related to the total amount of radiation accumulated by an individual. Based on current scientific evidence, any exposure to radiation can be harmful (or can increase the risk of cancer); however, at very low exposures, the estimated increases in risk are very small. For this reason, cancer rates in populations receiving very low doses of radiation may not show increases over the rates for unexposed populations.

How Ionizing Radiation is Measured

Environmental Dosimeters, commonly called thermoluminescent dosimeters (TLDs), are used to measure ionizing radiation exposures.  The TLDs measure ionizing radiation exposures from all sources, including natural radioactivity, cosmic radiation, fallout from nuclear weapons testing, radioactivity from fossil fuel burning, and radioactive effluents from INEEL operations and other industrial processes.