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Radiation: What It Is, What You Need to Know

Radiation: What It Is, What You Need to Know

4.8 7
by Robert Peter Gale, Eric Lax

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The essential guide to radiation: the good, the bad, and the utterly fascinating, explained with unprecedented clarity.

Earth, born in a nuclear explosion, is a radioactive planet; without radiation, life would not exist. And while radiation can be dangerous, it is also deeply misunderstood and often mistakenly feared. Now Robert Peter Gale, M.D,—the


The essential guide to radiation: the good, the bad, and the utterly fascinating, explained with unprecedented clarity.

Earth, born in a nuclear explosion, is a radioactive planet; without radiation, life would not exist. And while radiation can be dangerous, it is also deeply misunderstood and often mistakenly feared. Now Robert Peter Gale, M.D,—the doctor to whom concerned governments turned in the wake of the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters—in collaboration with medical writer Eric Lax draws on an exceptional depth of knowledge to correct myths and establish facts.

Exploring what have become trigger words for anxiety—nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, uranium, plutonium, iodine-131, mammogram, X-ray, CT scan, threats to the food chain—the authors demystify the science and dangers of radiation, and examine its myriad benefits, from safely sterilizing our food to the relatively low-risk fuel alternative of nuclear energy. This is the book for all readers who have asked themselves questions such as: What kinds of radiation, and what degree of exposure, cause cancer? What aftereffects have nuclear accidents and bombs had? Does radiation increase the likelihood of birth defects? And how does radiation work?

Hugely illuminating, Radiation is the definitive road map to our post-Chernobyl, post-Fukushima world.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Oncologist and bone marrow transplant specialist Gale (Final Warning: The Legacy of Chernobyl, with Thomas Hauser) has ventured into the world's top "hot spots"—Chernobyl and Fukushima—and emerged to assure us that our worries about radiation are disproportionate to actual risks. With science writer and biographer Lax (Woody Allen: A Biography), Gale tackles the complicated science of radiobiology to quell unfounded fears and help readers weigh the risks and benefits of nuclear technologies. Taking on some of our more common anxieties, Gale shows there's no evidence that microwaves, cell phones, or LED watches increase the risk of cancer, that going through airport scanners is dangerous, or that irradiated food is radioactive. And though he notes that the U.S. must be careful about how it utilizes nuclear energy, Gale notes that coal-fired plants produce three times more radiation than do nuclear power stations. He also insists that despite the real dangers of nuclear terrorism, radiation saves more lives than it harms, citing its use as an important anticancer therapy. Gale's is an invaluable guide for negotiating an increasingly radioactive world—for scientists, patients of radiation-related medical procedures, and environmentalists alike. Agent: Kris Dahl, International Creative Management. (Jan.)
Library Journal
Gale, who developed the bone-marrow transplant used to treat exposure to radiation and served as a consultant at Chernobyl and Fukushima, is so hot that he's been profiled in Vanity Fair. This myth buster explains what radiation is, why it's important, and what role radiation-based technologies now play.
Kirkus Reviews
A leading expert in nuclear medicine and in dealing with the aftermath of nuclear disasters offers a basis for assessing the risks associated with radiation. With science writer Lax (Faith, Interrupted, 2011, etc.), renowned oncologist and hematologist Gale presents a primer on nuclear radiation. Writing for general readers, the author first establishes what nuclear radiation is, distinguishing the part that is man-made from that of natural origins and then what is harmful from what is not. He explains how radiation is measured and what normal background absorption rates are (per year, per person) in different parts of the world. He shows how man-made radiation has increased since nuclear weapons were developed. Surprisingly, the major component of this increase has not been weapons testing, but rather medical and nuclear diagnostics. Gale augments this discussion with a summary of what has been learned medically and scientifically from the nuclear bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as from atmospheric testing programs. Examining the half-lives of nuclear particles, the author shows how thyroid cancer and leukemia arise and how they can be treated. This background enables him to transition to the dangers of radiation in all its forms. He also discusses coal burning versus nuclear electric generation. Another surprise is just how unlikely it is for cancer-producing mutations to arise from atmospheric radiation. Gale ends with a helpful summary of his points. A well-written extension of the reach of reason in an area fraught with phobia and hysteria.
From the Publisher
Praise for Robert Peter Gale and Eric Lax's Radiation

“Eric Lax [and Robert] Gale weigh up the risks and benefits of industrial, medical and natural radiation clearly, logically and with ample science. . . . It is Gale’s phenomenal frontline experience that gives this book edge.”

“Humorous and accessible. . . . Gale and Lax aim to fill in the gaps in the public understanding of all things nuclear, and they are adept at doing so. . . . The book navigates this troublesome territory without bias. . . . [Gale and Lax] present a host of interesting facts and figures . . . and their explanation of the biological effect of internal radiation is excellent. . . . This book does a good job at explaining radiation and what it does, both good and bad. Radiation is integral to our planet and its use will shape our future here. In Radiation, Gale and Lax help us understand how and why.”
New Scientist 

“Everyone needs to read this book; it’s compact, easy to understand, rife with interesting revelations, and it cuts through a great deal of the noise surrounding the subject [of radiation].”
Jewish Journal
“Stellar. . . . Gale and Lax objectively present the danger and value of radioactivity. In content and writing, Radiation absolutely glows.”
Booklist (starred review)

“[Lax and] Gale’s is an invaluable guide for negotiating an increasingly radioactive world—for scientists, patients of radiation-related medical procedures, and environmentalists alike.”
Publishers Weekly

“A well-written extension of the reach of reason in an area fraught with phobia and hysteria.”
Kirkus Reviews

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

Excerpted from the Hardcover Edition



How Can I Determine My Risk of Cancer From Radiation, and Why Is There So Much Disagreement Among Experts?

On July 16, 1945, in the Jornada del Muerto (Journey of Death) desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico, the fiery explosion of the Trinity test—the first atomic bomb—generated a light brighter than any ever seen on Earth. As it dimmed, it revealed a mushroom cloud of vaporized water and debris that grew thousands of feet into the air. J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904–1967), who more than anyone else was responsible for building the weapon, wrote afterward that watching the explosion brought to mind two lines from the sacred Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst into the sky that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One.” And: “I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds.” (It is perhaps more likely that his first thought was, Wow! Thank God, it worked!)

That shattering burst of energy was also an act of creation: it produced radioactive forms of natural elements that—apart from laboratory work during the bomb’s development—had never before existed on Earth, including ­cesium-­137, iodine-­131, and strontium-­90. During the months that followed these newly created radionuclides circled the globe and silently entered the bodies of everyone alive. And because some of these radionuclides remain radioactive for hundreds or thousands of years, the children of these people, their children, and all humans from that date until our species ceases to exist will have radionuclides created at the Trinity explosion in their bodies. The same is true for the radionuclides released by the more than 450 atmospheric nuclear weapons tests carried out by the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and China between 1945 and 1980, and from several nuclear power facility accidents. Of course, the amounts of radionuclides released from each of these sources differ vastly. It is inappropriate to consider atomic weapons and nuclear power facility accidents comparable, because the quantity of radionuclides released varies greatly, because they are not uniformly distributed over the Earth, and because different people have different likelihoods of encountering them.

Some of the radionuclides released by nuclear weapons testing and by nuclear power facility accidents can cause cancer. But some of the same radionuclides are used to diagnose and treat cancers and save lives. What is the balance between the potential harm and benefit posed by radionuclides and by all forms of radiation?

To determine whether this balance favors harm or benefit, it is necessary to know what radiation dose a person has received. This is not as simple as it might seem (in fact it is exceedingly complex, even for radiation experts), so we ask the reader please to bear with the following several pages of technical information, knowing that in the end all you ­really need to remember is one technical term: millisievert (mSv), named for the Swedish medical physicist Rolf Maximilian Sievert (1896–1966), who did pioneering work on the biological effects of radiation exposure. A sievert (Sv) is a unit of potentially harmful radiation. Each year we generally receive a few thousandths of a sievert, called a millisievert. People in the United States on average receive 6.5 mSv of radiation annually.

Radioactivity is measured by the number of atoms decaying (losing energy by emitting radioactive particles and/or electromagnetic waves) in a certain amount of time. The disappearance of a radionuclide is measured by how long it takes for one-­half of its atoms to decay. That can take a long time, as something can be reduced by one-­half almost forever, until only one atom remains—and then it decays. But most of the starting radioactivity is gone after about 10 half-­lives; only about one-­thousandth of the starting radioactivity remains.

These measurements have many names, depending on what you want to quantify. At first it is easy to mistake which unit to use, so one can end up comparing the radioactive equivalent of eels to elephants. It is also easy to mistake amounts: 1 microsievert (a millionth of a sievert) is a thousand times smaller than 1 millisievert (a thousand mSv make 1 Sv), yet several news reports of the Fukushima-­Daiichi nuclear power facility accident confused these units.

In estimating how a radiation exposure might affect us, scientists need to consider the amount of radiation we are exposed to; what type of radiation it is; how much of it gets into the various cells, tissues, and organs in our body; and how susceptible these tissues and organs are to radiation-­induced damage. Some cells, like bone marrow, skin, and gastrointestinal tract cells, are especially sensitive to damage from radiation. One reason is that they divide frequently—rapidly dividing cells are more sensitive to radiation that damage DNA. For example, a normal person needs to produce about 3 billion red blood cells each day to stay healthy. Other cells, predominantly those that divide infrequently, if ever, like heart, liver, and brain cells, are relatively resistant to radiation-­induced damage.

So to determine the amount of radiation in an exposure, we must calculate the quantity of radiation emitted or released from a source, be it a CT scanner, a radiation therapy machine, a nuclear weapon, a failed nuclear power facility, or a radioisotope injected for a PET scan.

But calculating the quantity of radiation is complex. Some diagnostic radiation machines emit electromagnetic waves such as X‑rays or particles such as protons, neutrons, or electrons. Other radiation-­related activities, like fissioning uranium-­235 or plutonium-­239 in a nuclear weapon, emit gamma rays and neutrons. Most fission products emit electrons and gamma rays. The explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor released into the environment more than 200 radionuclides in diverse physical and chemical forms, including radioactive gases such as xenon-­133 and iodine-­124 and -131, as well as radioactive particles. These gases rapidly disperse into the atmosphere. The radioactive particles also disperse across a very broad area—unless it happens to rain when the radioactive cloud passes over you and particles of cesium-­137 and strontium-­90 fall to the ground with the raindrops.

Unfortunately, when the radioactive plume from the 1986 Chernobyl accident containing particles with iodine-­131 and cesium-­137 passed over Scotland, it was raining. Consequently, substantial amounts of these radionuclides landed on grass. The grass was subsequently eaten by grazing animals, especially sheep, and those radionuclides were incorporated into their bodies and secreted in their milk. The iodine-­131, with an 8-­day half-­life, was gone in about three months. But the cesium-­137 was concentrated in the meat of the sheep, and with its half-­life of 30 years, it stayed around for the lifetime of the sheep. The level of cesium-­137 in many of these animals exceeded government safety standards; consequently many sheep were killed and buried, and their meat was quarantined from the market.

For a radioactive substance or radionuclide, like a gram of radium-­232 or a gram of cesium-­137, we can compute how much radiation it releases by considering the number of spontaneous disintegrations (decays) that occur in the nuclei of the atoms in that gram over a certain time interval, for example, one second. This rate of decay, referred to as the amount of radioactivity in radionuclides, is measured in units called becquerels (Bq), named after the nineteenth-­century French physicist Antoine-­Henri Becquerel (1852–1908). One becquerel equals one nuclear disintegration per second. Because this is an extremely small quantity, scientists often speak of thousands of becquerels (a kilobecquerel, KBq), millions of becquerels (a megabecquerel, MBq), a million million becquerels (a terabecquerel, TBq), or even a billion billion becquerels (a exabecquerel, EBq). It’s like an expression of speed. If a becquerel is a person walking 1 mile per hour, a kilobecquerel is like the same person walking (or rocketing) 1,000 miles per hour, and so forth. However, the quantity of becquerels a substance contains is not the only consideration for human health. Because different nuclear disintegrations release different electromagnetic waves and particles, the same quantity of becquerels released can have substantially different potential health consequences. Also, not all radioactive substances are equally radioactive. When we compare similar quantities of thorium-­230 and ­uranium-­234, for example, the thorium-­230 is about 1 million times more radioactive—it has 1 million times more disintegrations per second.

Once we have ascertained the amount of radioactivity, we must determine how much radioactive energy it deposits into something. That “something” can be the air, another substance, or our bodies.

Then we must determine how this radioactivity interacts with humans. This is referred to as dose, which is quite different from emitted radiation. Imagine a gram of ­cesium-­137 inside a lead box. It is releasing radiation in the form of electrons and gamma rays, but no one is being exposed to it, because these radiations cannot penetrate the lead. So the dose of radiation to any person is zero, and hence it has no chance for harm to us. But if you are holding this same gram of ­cesium-­137 in your hand, the same electrons and gamma rays that it emits through the spontaneous decay of its nucleus will interact with the skin, muscle, and nerve cells in that hand. And because gamma rays can travel considerable distances and pass through many substances, other parts of your body will be exposed to radiation, although not uniformly. As these gamma rays pass through your cells, they will deposit some of their energy within each cell they strike. This amount of energy is the radiation dose to the cell.

Another concept in radiation dosimetry is the radiation absorbed dose, which is expressed in units of gray (Gy), after the British physicist Louis Harold Gray (1905–1965). A gray is the amount of energy a dose of radiation deposits in a tissue. We will skip over them other than to say that the quantity of grays absorbed into a tissue or organ (adjusted for some biological factors) can be converted to a number of sieverts, the unit used to estimate risk of harm, like cancer, from radiation exposure.

Finally, determining the effective dose, measured in sieverts, considers two issues. First, not all types of radiation are equally damaging—for example, a dose of neutrons absorbed is much more damaging than the same dose of X‑rays. Second, different cells, tissues, and organs in the body, as we saw, have different sensitivities to radiation damage. Effective dose adjusts for these variables and thereby gives a better estimate of the harmful consequences of a radiation exposure. This, at last, brings us to the end of units of radioactivity and activity. But please try to remember ­millisieverts, as we will translate everything into them from now on.

Having slogged through so many technicalities, let’s examine how scientists analyze radiation emitted, energy absorbed, and biological damage from that radioactivity, so that we can make the one judgment that ­really matters: What am I exposed to, and is it bad for me? We’ll use a basketball analogy, for simplicity.

When a player sends a basketball through the hoop, the number of points awarded can vary. A free throw is worth 1 point, a basket shot from inside a circumscribed area is worth 2 points, and a basket shot from outside that area is worth 3. The team’s score in a game is not the number of times its players sent the ball through the hoop but the total of the points awarded from those baskets. It’s the same with measuring radioactivity: the amount you are exposed to is not necessarily the amount that you will absorb, and that is not necessarily directly correlated with the amount of harm. Determining that final harm score means weighing and balancing several factors.

If there were a direct correlation between a specific amount of exposure and the onset of disease, a simple chart would clarify things for you. But the relationship between radiation and disease is not entirely linear.

The conventional approach to determining a person’s cancer risk from a radiation exposure is to compare the range of possible effects from the dose in the scientifically accurate but difficult-­to-­understand units we’ve detailed. When there is a nuclear or radiation accident, public health authorities often give information in terms of what radiation dose people received (or will receive in the future) and/or how much radioactivity is in something they may encounter, such as food or water. They then compare these doses or amounts of radioactivity to a benchmark, such as the normal background radiation dose, or the dose a nuclear power facility worker receives annually, or the regulatory limit or threshold for radioactivity in food or water.

Such information, given to people who are not radiation scientists or physicians, is likely to be uninformative at best and misleading at worst, and it is at once confusing and simplistic. The implication is that if you receive a dose similar to or less than your normal background dose, or less than a regulatory limit for food or water, you need not worry. For example, if the regulatory limit for radioactivity in milk is 500 Bq per liter and the milk you are drinking contains 350 Bq per liter, you are not at risk.

But things are not so simple. For any radiation dose, the risk of getting cancer also depends on one’s age at the time of exposure, estimated remaining life span, exposure to other cancer-­causing agents (like cigarette smoke), concurrent health problems that can be exacerbated by radiation, and other complicated variables. Simply put, the implications for an eighty-­year-­old exposed to a given dose of radiation are entirely different from those for a three-­year-­old who receives exactly the same dose.

Assessing risk requires statistical analyses. You cannot rely only on dose to express a person’s risk of getting cancer, because dose is only an intermediate quantity between their radiation exposure and their cancer risk. A more helpful way to link cancer risk to exposure is to specify a person’s lifetime risk of cancer regardless of the cause; specify the additional lifetime risk resulting only from a specific radiation exposure; estimate future cancer risk for persons exposed in the past (or who soon will be exposed) and who are currently free of cancer, radiation related or not; or estimate the likely increase in numbers of cancers in an exposed population such as people evacuated from Fukushima.

When we talk about the dangers of radiation, we are usually referring to ionizing radiations, which can alter the structure of atoms, molecules, and chemicals in our cells and cause cancers. Most data suggest that exposure to nonionizing radiations (except UV), like those from TVs, computer screens, high-­voltage electrical transmission wires, and the like, are not harmful. This area is controversial and conclusions may change, but the adverse effects of nonionizing radiations, if any, are unquestionably small compared to the proven harmful effects of ionizing radiations like neutrons and gamma rays. The challenge in considering risk of illness from a new exposure to an ionizing radiation—say, from a radiation accident—is to compare it to voluntary and involuntary cancer and noncancer risks in everyday life, like ­driv­ing a car, riding a motorcycle, flying in a jet aircraft, or going into a basement containing radon gas. By looking at the whole picture, we can weigh the cancer risk from a radiation exposure and decide whether a past exposure is important or whether a future exposure is acceptable.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
“[Lax and] Gale’s is an invaluable guide for negotiating an increasingly radioactive world—for scientists, patients of radiation-related medical procedures, and environmentalists alike.”
            -Publishers Weekly

“Gale and Lax objectively present the danger and value of radioactivity. In content and writing, Radiation absolutely glows.”

“A well-written extension of the reach of reason in an area fraught with phobia and hysteria.”
            -Kirkus Reviews

“Gale and Lax aim to fill in the gaps in the public understanding of all things nuclear, and they are adept at doing so. Throughout the book they present a host of interesting facts and figures in humorous and accessible prose.”
            -New Scientist

Meet the Author

Dr. Robert Peter Gale was on the faculty of the UCLA School of Medicine for twenty years and has served as chairman of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the International Bone Marrow Transplant Registry. He is the author of twenty-two medical books, eight hundred scientific articles, and numerous pieces on medical topics and nuclear energy for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal.

Eric Lax is the author of medical/science books Life and Death on Ten West, an account of the UCLA bone marrow transplantation unit, as well as Woody Allen: A Biography, each a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat, about the development of penicillin, was a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year.

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Radiation: What It Is, What You Need to Know 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A small pure white shekit pads in. She has a star shaped black patch of fur on her forehead.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Welcome young one!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
pccoder More than 1 year ago
I learned so much about the misconceptions about radiation and how there really is no magic formula which dictates who will/won't get cancer from exposure to radiation. Also, learned that certain radiation is technically good for you while some may not be.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Rp is on res 4 and forward.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I stand there with my gray polo shirt and brown khakis. I rub my hands together." When do I begin?"