101 on Radiation Injury and the Risk of Cancer

Do you think we are totally screwed? Almost every day there is a disaster somewhere on this planet. People are left injured, homeless or dead. But some of us are lucky to be alive and well…sort of…considering the miserable weather and the potholes we always complain about.

What is happening to Japan’s nuclear reactors is scary. Then we have experts who remind us of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As part of my research for this article, I thought I will find out more about these places where nuclear disasters have occurred.

The list is long. And the list has only reported the proximate confirmed human deaths and has not detailed ecological, environmental or long term effects such as birth defects or permanent loss of habitable land. That tells me that most of us are totally ignorant of the amount of radiation damage being inflicted on us by these nuclear reactors.

These nuclear reactors are also a great source of energy and provide us with many comforts which we take for granted. Radiation is a form of energy that is present all around us. Different types of radiation exist, some of which have more energy than others.

There are two types of radiation energy:

-Non-Ionizing radiation is low-frequency radiation that does not have enough energy to remove electrons or directly damage DNA. Low-energy UV rays, visible light, infrared rays, microwaves and radio waves are all forms of non-ionizing radiation.

-Ionizing radiation has enough energy to damage the DNA in cells, which in turn may lead to cancer. Gamma rays, x-rays, some high-energy UV rays, and some sub-atomic particles such as alpha particles and protons are forms of ionizing radiation. In general, radiation is a word used for ionizing radiation.  

Due to an accident, natural disaster or by an act of terrorism the nuclear reactors are disrupted leading to environmental radioactive contamination and radiation exposure.  Such a release exposes people and contaminates their surroundings and personal property. That is serious stuff. Our body can absorb small amount of radiation but severe exposure is harmful.

One aspect of radiation exposure we often forget is the low-dose ionizing radiation from the x-ray departments when we are sent there for various kinds of investigations. A recent paper in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (Mar 8, 2011) reported a study involving 82, 861 patients, 77 per cent of them had undergone at least one cardiac x-ray or treatment procedure involving low-dose ionizing radiation in the first year after a heart attack.

Patients included in the study had no history of cancer. In a 10-year follow-up, a total of 12, 020 incident cancers were diagnosed. Risk of cancer was dose dependent and had a cumulative effect.  

Let me not scare you. Exposure to ionizing radiation from a single x-ray test does not pose a substantial risk to individual patients. But numerous tests can result in a cumulative exposure that represents a substantial risk to the patient. And remember, we do not have any mechanism to track cumulative doses of radiation in individual patients.

Currently, we have no way of knowing how much danger we face from what is happening in Japan. That does not mean we should not worry about it. But we should also worry about the radiation exposure from the sun, x-ray machines, cell-phones and other devices.

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