Some of the Worst Radiation Effects on Humans

There is a good chance that at least once in your life, you have had a large lead blanket placed on your chest before having an x-ray done. You may have this done every six months if you are vigilant about your dental hygiene. A lead blanket is required to shield the vital organs in your body from receiving ionized radiation.

Ionized radiation is radiation that can and most likely will damage a person’s body and/or a person’s DNA. Without a lead blanket or apron to protect your body from this amount of radiation exposure during an x-ray, your organs and DNA can become significantly damaged. Therefore, a lead blanket is required when administering a medical procedure using ionized radiation, such as an x-ray.

However, how do you protect yourself from everyday radiation that you may not realize you are being exposed to? And what are some of the worst effects of radiation on humans?

If you have watched the show The 100, radiation sickness is portrayed after a person has been exposed to extremely high, fatal doses. While the show’s plotline may be far fetched, the portrayal of the radiation sickness is not. Radiation can have long-lasting devastating effects on the human body if highly exposed.

Radiation Exposure

Radiation is classified as ionized and non-ionized. Ionized and non-ionized radiation come as background radiation as well as medical radiation. Let’s take a deeper look into these types of radiation before we discuss the dangerous effects the radiation has on humans.

Yellow triangle radiation warning sign

Ionized Radiation

Ionized radiation is much more dangerous than non-ionized radiation. Ionized radiation is heavy doses of radiation in the form of ultraviolet rays, X-rays, and gamma rays. These rays are defined as ionized radiation because the energy within the radiation is powerful enough to detach the electrons from the atoms and ionize them.

When the energetic subatomic particles and electromagnetic waves become ionized, they move at a high rate of speed and have the ability to severely damage the skin, organs, and nervous system when exposed.

Non-Ionized Radiation

Radiation that does not have enough energy to ionize the particles within the atoms is called non-ionized radiation. Non-ionized radiation is much safer than ionized radiation because the level of energy within the molecules is extremely low; too low to ionize the subatomic particles. This means that there will essentially be no effect on a person’s skin, organs, or nervous system when coming in contact with the radiation.

Background Radiation

Background radiation is both natural and artificial. 

Natural occurrences of background radiation include radon located within the air, cosmic radiation from space, ingestion of radiation from food and water, and terrestrial radiation found in the earth’s soil. 

Artificial occurrences of background radiation include residual nuclear radiation. This can be from a nuclear explosion, nuclear reactor meltdown, or nuclear testing. Once the event has passed, whether intentional or accidental, residual nuclear radiation will be present in the background and can be absorbed in a person’s body or DNA.

Medical Radiation

Medical radiation is radiation that is emitted through medical radiology, such as an X-ray, MRI, or nuclear medicine. Without proper protection, medical radiation can have damaging effects on the human body and DNA. This is why a lead apron is placed over the body before receiving a medical or dental x-ray.

If a lead apron was not placed over the body’s vital organs, the x-ray administered would penetrate into the person’s body and damage the person’s vital organs. These organs include the heart, lungs, gastrointestinal tracts, and reproductive system.

Dangerous Effects of Radiation on Humans

When exposed to ionized radiation, there can be many lasting effects on the human body. These effects can be mildly short-lived or severely long-lasting. Some of the mild effects of radiation exposure include skin burns, eye or vision damage, and nerve or muscle damage. As bad as these effects are, they do not compare to some of the worst radiation effects on humans.

Radiation Dosages

Radiation dosage is typically classified in five ranges. Each range has a respective dosage amount that correlates to the type of sickness one will experience when coming in contact with that amount. 

If measuring the dosage of radiation by rads, the following table illustrates the five ranges of radiation dosages with respective health issues for each.

Radiation Dose and Possible Symptoms Chart
Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Further, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, without medical attention, death above 600 rads is certain. With a dose above 1000 rads, death is certain and likely within 60 days.

Acute Radiation Sickness

Acute Radiation sickness is a severe health issue directly related to radiation exposure, especially exposure in large doses or for long periods of time.

Symptoms of radiation sickness include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Diarrhea
  • Blood in vomit, urine, or stool
  • Infections
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Hair loss

Radiation sickness can be acute or chronic. Acute radiation sickness, also known as acute radiation syndrome (ARS) is radiation sickness that has developed rapidly. Here are some examples of how you can develop acute radiation sickness:

  • Nuclear exposure at a nuclear facility
  • Nuclear weapon detonation
  • Radioactive weapon detonation
  • Intentional or accidental meltdown of a nuclear facility

Chronic radiation sickness, also known as chronic radiation syndrome (CRS), is where you develop symptoms of radiation sickness over a period of time from being chronically exposed to the radiation.

Radiation sickness isn’t limited to symptoms that are a direct result of the radiation sickness. Instead, there are radiation illnesses that a person will need to be aware of because these illnesses may develop after a certain period of time has passed.

These radiation illnesses include:

  • Bone marrow sickness
  • Gastrointestinal sickness
  • Cardiovascular sickness
  • Nervous system sickness

Bone Marrow Sickness

Bone marrow sickness includes bone marrow disease and bone marrow disorder. Mild to moderate, but manageable, health effects of bone marrow sickness from small doses of radiation include bloody stool, sepsis, vomiting, diarrhea, and anemia.

The syndrome generally occurs at doses between 70 – 1000 rads with mild symptoms with as little as 30 rads.

Bone marrow sickness has a high mortality rate when relating to high radiation exposure because of the body’s inability to create red and white blood cells within the bone marrow once the bone marrow has been exposed to radiation.

Cooling tower near Chernobyl Power Plant

Because the bone marrow cannot produce white and red blood cells, the body is subjected to infections, anemia, and fatal hemorrhage. This makes bone marrow sickness one of the worst radiation effects on humans when coming in contact with large doses of radiation.

Gastrointestinal Sickness

Gastrointestinal sickness, when related to radiation exposure, can have mild to severe effects. Mild radiation will cause manageable gastrointestinal issues, such as vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and stomach pain.

Severe gastrointestinal sickness from excessive radiation exposure includes severe symptoms and illnesses. This can include anorexia, emaciation, dehydration, and starvation, making mortality a highly probable result of radiation sickness in the gastrointestinal tract.

The full sickness usually occurs at high levels of exposure – 1000 rads though some symptoms can occur at 600 rads.

Cardiovascular Sickness

Symptoms of cardiovascular sickness from mild exposure of radiation include arrhythmia, pericarditis (inflammation of the tissue around the heart), and valve disease. These are all sicknesses known as cardiotoxicity. Cardiotoxicity is where the heart has become toxic because of radiation exposure. This is typically in relation to medical radiation treatment.

Cardiovascular sickness from larger doses of radiation is much more life-threatening. These health issues include congestive heart failure, coronary artery disease, cardiomyopathy, increased risk of stroke, and heart disease.

Depending on the severity of the issues and if they are combined with other issues, such as bone marrow sickness or gastrointestinal sickness can determine if mortality is a possibility from cardiovascular sickness in relation to radiation exposure.

Full cardiovascular sickness occurs at a dose greater than 5000 rads though it can occur at 2000 rads.

Nervous System Sickness

When exposed to small doses of radiation, the nervous system can be affected. These health effects include anxiety, tremors, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and lethargy.

Nervous system sickness becomes fatal when the radiation doses are high (2000 – 5000 rads). This results in irreparable damage to the nervous system resulting in seizures, convulsions, respiratory failure, and coma.

Other Radiation Sicknesses, Illnesses, and Effects on Humans

As if these aren’t bad enough, there are additional sicknesses, illnesses, and effects that small and high doses of radiation have on humans. This can include issues related to the skin, lungs, reproductive system, and issues related to the eyes and vision.

Radiation Effects on the Skin

Cutaneous Radiation Syndrome describes the complex pathological syndrome that occurs to the skin with radiation exposure.

One of the most common methods of medical treatment against cancer is the use of radiation. Radiation treatment will commonly cause hair to fall out of the area in which the radiation is applied. This can be explained by CRS. When the basal layer of skin is damaged by radiation, hair follicles become damaged causing hair loss.

In addition to hair loss, other effects that radiation has on the skin is blistering, burning, itching, and flaking. These effects can be mild to severe, depending on the level and the amount of radiation a person has been exposed to.

Radiation Effects on the Lungs

Respiratory issues related to radiation exposure within the lungs can be mild to severe. Some of the mild effects may include inflammation, fluid retention, and fibrosis, and can be treated with common steroids and antibiotics.

Heavy radiation exposure has severe health issues that include failure of the pulmonary valves. The failure of the pulmonary valves can result in heart failure if no treatment is possible.

Radiation Effects on the Reproductive System

Both female and male reproductive systems are affected by levels of radiation exposure. Mild symptoms of radiation doses can cause menstruation and fertility issues in women. A woman may not be able to ovulate for months or even years after experiencing doses of radiation.

Men who experience mild levels of radiation can experience decreased sperm count. Higher levels of radiation can cause temporary to permanent sterility in men, depending on the level and duration of radiation.

Pregnant woman standing on the beach with sun setting in the background

For women who are currently pregnant, exposure to radiation may have significant health effects on an unborn fetus.

The effects to the fetus can occur if the pregnant woman is exposed to radiation from outside her body (e.g., x-rays) or if the woman accidentally swallows or breathes in radioactive material.

The possibility of severity and types of ill effects depends on the dose she is exposed to and how far along she is in the pregnancy. Risks range from increased cancer risk for the baby later in life to birth defects. Given the sensitive nature of these health effects, please consult this CDC fact sheet on radiation and pregnancy for more information.

Radiation Effects on the Eyes

Low doses of radiation can have mild effects on eyes and vision. This can include blurry vision, dizziness, and itchy or burning eyes.

More severe effects on the eyes from larger doses of radiation can include retina damage, vision loss, and cataracts.

How to Protect Yourself from Radiation

Fortunately, most of us are not exposed to high levels of radiation on a daily basis, but this does not mean we should not take necessary precautions to protect us from low doses of everyday radiation.

Radiation is all around us in forms of electromagnetic frequency. Electromagnetic frequency, also known as EMF, emits radiation in three different forms: extremely low frequency (ELF) radiation, radiofrequency (RF) radiation, and heat (thermal/infrared) radiation.

These forms of radiation are among you as you read this, and you may already be experiencing symptoms of EMF radiation exposure.

Even small levels of EMF radiation can affect you on a daily basis.

These health issues may be in the form of frequent headaches, blurry vision, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, mood swings, and hormonal imbalances. While these health issues are mild in comparison to some of the worst radiation effects on the human body, they can still be debilitating and painful to deal with on a daily basis.

To protect yourself from EMF radiation, here are a few tips:

1. Reduce Cell Phone Use

Excessive use of a cell phone will increase the amount of EMF radiation you receive on a daily basis. You can reduce EMF radiation exposure through the use of a cell phone by turning your cell phone off at night or when not in use. Additionally, you can move your cell phone to an area of the home away from you to lessen the amount of EMF radiation your body can receive from the cell phone.

2. Turn off Wi-Fi

Wireless internet routers constantly emit EMF radiation by communicating between the internet service provider and the electronic device requesting internet information. This EMF radiation is in the form of radio frequencies, as radiofrequency is how the wireless router and electronic devices communicate. To reduce the amount of EMF radiation you may receive from a wireless internet router, turn off your Wi-Fi router each night.

Read more: Is It Safe To Sleep Near A Wireless Router?

3. Use an EMF Radiation Protective Cover

0To protect yourself from electronic devices that emit EMF radiation, you can use an EMF radiation protective cover or case for your electronic device. DefenderShield® makes the best EMF radiation protective coverings, shields, and cases for all electronic devices. There is a covering or case for all tablets, cell phones, and laptops from DefenderShield® to protect you from 99% of EMF radiation the electronic device emits.

Conclusion

There is no denying that radiation can have serious effects on humans. While not all radiation exposure is fatal, the risk is always present when dealing with radiation exposure.

The worst radiation effects on humans come when levels of radiation are extremely high. These issues often end in fatality because the organs within the body cannot combat the ionized radiation it is experiencing.

Ionized radiation is when subatomic particles have so much energy that they are ionized. This energy directly affects a person’s organs, cells, and DNA in some form. Without proper protection, a person’s body cannot withstand the radiation and will succumb to the injuries it sustained.

If a lead apron was not in place when receiving a medical or dental x-ray, a person’s vital organs would receive a large dose of radiation and would likely experience issues like the ones we have mentioned above. By placing a lead apron over the vital organs of a person before receiving an x-ray, the organs are protected from receiving high doses of radiation.

While large doses of radiation are not common on a day-to-day basis, you are not completely radiation-free. Small doses of radiation are found all around us through our electronic devices. These devices use electromagnetic frequencies (EMF) in the form of extremely low frequency, radiofrequency, and infrared frequency.

To protect yourself from EMF radiation, you can implement simple practices, such as turning your cell phone off when it is not in use, placing your cell phone across the room or in another room as you sleep, turning your wireless router off at night, or using a protective case on your electronic devices. Our world will never be radiation-free, but knowing some of the worst radiation effects on humans can help us learn how to adequately protect ourselves from these silent killers.

You might be interested in our article on protecting your home from EMF exposure.

References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health and Human Services. Acute Radiation Syndrome: A Fact Sheet for Physicians.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Early (Acute) Effects of Radiation.

Mettler, Guskova, and Gusev, Health Effects in Those with Acute Radiation Sickness from the Chernobyl Accident Health Phys. 93, 462, (2007).

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health and Human Services. Acute Radiation Syndrome: A Fact Sheet for Clinicians.

Coggle, J. E., Lambert, B. E., & Moores, S. R. (1986). Radiation effects in the lungEnvironmental health perspectives70, 261–291

Ogilvy-Stuart, A. L., & Shalet, S. M. (1993). Effect of radiation on the human reproductive systemEnvironmental health perspectives101 Suppl 2, 109–116

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health and Human Services. Radiation and Pregnancy: A Fact Sheet for the Public.