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Are bananas really ‘radioactive’? An expert clears up common misunderstandings about radiation

Are bananas really ‘radioactive’? An expert clears up common misunderstandings about radiation

The simple mention of the word “radiation” often evokes fear in people. For others, it’s fun to think that a little radiation exposure can turn you into the next superhero, just like the Hulk.

But is it true that basically everything around us is radioactive, even the food we eat? You may have heard that bananas are slightly radioactive, but what does that actually mean? And while we’re not superheroes, are human bodies also radioactive?

What is radiation?

Radiation is energy that travels from one point to another, either as waves or particles. We are exposed to radiation from various natural and man-made sources on a daily basis.

Cosmic rays from the sun and space, radiation from rocks and soil, as well as radioactivity in the air we breathe and in our food and water, are all sources of natural radiation.

Bananas are a well-known example of a natural radiation source. They contain a lot of potassium and a small amount of this is radioactive. But there’s no need to give up your banana smoothie — the amount of radiation is extremely small and far less than the natural “background radiation” we’re exposed to every day.

Artificial sources of radiation include medical treatments and X-rays, cell phones and power lines. There is a common misconception that artificial radiation sources are more dangerous than naturally occurring radiation. However, this is simply not true.

There are no physical properties that make artificial radiation different or more harmful than natural radiation. The harmful effects are related to the dose, not where the exposure comes from.

What is the difference between radiation and radioactivity?

The words “radiation” and “radioactivity” are often used interchangeably. Although the two are related, they are not quite the same.

Radioactivity refers to an unstable atom undergoing radioactive decay. Energy is released in the form of radiation when the atom tries to achieve stability or becomes non-radioactive.

The radioactivity of a material describes the rate at which it decays and the process(es) by which it decays. So radioactivity can be thought of as the process by which elements and materials try to become stable, and radiation as the energy released as a result of this process.

Ionizing and non-ionizing radiation

Depending on the energy level, radiation can be classified into two types.

Ionizing radiation has enough energy to remove an electron from an atom, which can change the chemical composition of a material. Examples of ionizing radiation include X-rays and radon (a radioactive gas found in rocks and soil).

Non-ionizing radiation has less energy, but can still excite molecules and atoms, causing them to vibrate faster. Common sources of non-ionizing radiation include cell phones, power lines, and ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun.

Is all radiation dangerous? Not really

Radiation isn’t always dangerous – it depends on the type, strength, and how long you’re exposed to it.

As a general rule, the higher the energy level of the radiation, the more likely it is to cause damage. For example, we know that excessive exposure to ionizing radiation, such as naturally occurring radon gas, can damage human tissues and DNA.

We also know that non-ionizing radiation, such as the UV rays from the sun, can be harmful if the person is exposed to high enough intensity levels, with adverse health effects such as burns, cancer or blindness.

Importantly, because these hazards are well known and understood, they can be protected. International and national expert bodies provide guidelines to ensure the safety and radiation protection of people and the environment.

For ionizing radiation, this means that doses above the natural background radiation should be kept as low as reasonably achievable, for example by using only medical imaging of the body part, keeping the dose low and keeping copies of images to avoid repeat studies.

For non-ionizing radiation this means that the exposure remains below the safety limits. For example, telecommunications equipment uses radio frequency non-ionizing radiation and must operate within these safety limits.

In addition, in the case of UV radiation from the sun, we know that we can protect ourselves from exposure by using sunscreen and clothing when it reaches level 3 or higher on the UV index.

Radiation in medicine

While there are obvious risks when it comes to radiation exposure, it’s also important to recognize the benefits. A well-known example of this is the use of radiation in modern medicine.

Medical imaging uses ionizing radiation techniques, such as X-ray and CT scans, as well as non-ionizing radiation techniques, such as ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

These types of medical imaging techniques allow doctors to see what is happening inside the body and often lead to earlier and less invasive diagnoses. Medical imaging can also help rule out a serious illness.

Radiation can also help treat certain conditions — it can kill cancerous tissue, shrink a tumor, or even be used to reduce pain.

So is our body also radioactive? The answer is yes, like everything around us, we are also a little radioactive. But this is not something we need to worry about.

Our bodies are built to handle small amounts of radiation – therefore there is no danger to the amounts we are exposed to in our normal daily lives. Just don’t expect this radiation to turn you into a superhero anytime soon, because that’s definitely science fiction.

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