Workplace Safety Guides

   An Introduction to Ionizing Radiation


This article on ionizing radiation safety is designed to help you and your supervisor address radiation safety in your section. After reading this article, please take a few minutes to discuss radiation safety procedures that pertain to your area. With informed workers, responsible supervisors, and an aggressive safety program, we can reach our goal of keeping all exposures to ionizing radiation ALARA or as low as reasonable achievable.

Ionizing radiation is used throughout the air force in a multitude of applications. Whether it's used to see inside a body or an aircraft part, ionizing radiation is high energy and it must be strictly controlled to prevent or reduce exposures. This type of radiation emission includes high-energy photons, like x-rays and gamma rays, as well as particles like alpha, beta, and neutron radiation.

Ionizing radiation is just another property of matter in the form of energy release that occurs naturally. Whether it's coming from uranium ore underground, rays from the sun, or the cosmos, we are continually throughout our lives being exposed to naturally occurring background radiation. We can't control or limit background exposures, but there is a lot we can do to control and limit our occupational exposures.

Ionizing radiation can be generated by emitters that use large voltages to force electrons to strike a target and release x-rays. The x-rays generated are then filtered and collimated to produce x-rays of desirable strength.

Ionizing radiation is also produced by the natural decay of radioactive materials. When radioactive materials decay, they revert to a more stable form and release energy in the form of one or more of the following: gamma rays, alpha particles, beta particles, neutrons, light, and heat. Different radioactive materials have different energy release signatures.

Radioactive materials are chosen based on what type of energy release is required for the process. For example, a radioactive material called Americium 241 is commonly used in smoke detectors and in lantern parts. Americium 241 emits alpha and gamma radiation when it decays, which makes the required energy signature for the system.

It is important to note that materials that are irradiated do not normally become radioactive, unless they are subjected to extremely high radiation, as found in nuclear reactions. Most materials that are exposed to ionizing radiation remain essentially unaffected. However, ionizing radiation can damage cells that are exposed to high enough levels. This type of acute exposure is not likely to be significant unless large doses are received, repeated exposures are experienced, large portions of a body are exposed, or sensitive tissues are exposed.

Ionizing radiation can change a person's DNA structure, producing a mutation. If the DNA is damaged at a certain spot and it can't repair itself, it may cause a tumor or cancer. When a DNA strand is mutated, the cell dies most of the time. Repeated exposures increase the odds that one mutated cell will survive, producing a cancerous growth.

Ionizing Radiation is a powerful tool, but it is also a potential health hazard. We need not be fearful of it, but we must respect it. With informed workers, responsible supervisors and an aggressive safety program, we can keep all exposures to ionizing radiation as low as reasonably achievable.

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