Matter is composed of atoms. Some atoms are unstable. As these atoms change to become more stable, they give off invisible energy waves or particles called radiation.
There are different types of radiation, some more energetic than others. One type of radiation, non-ionizing radiation, has enough energy to move atoms but not enough to alter them chemically. This booklet discusses the most energetic form, known as ionizing radiation, which from here on will be referred to simply as radiation.
We measure radiation dose in units called rem. Scientists estimate that the average person in the United States receives a dose of about 360 millirem of radiation per year. Eighty percent of that exposure comes from natural sources: radon gas, the human body, outer space, and rocks and soil. The remaining 20 percent comes from man-made radiation sources, primarily medical x-rays.
Radiation is a carcinogen. In this respect, it is similar to many hazardous chemicals found in the environment that can cause cancer. It may also cause other adverse health effects, including genetic defects in the children of exposed parents or mental retardation in the children of mothers exposed during pregnancy. However, the risk of developing cancer due to radiation exposure is much higher than the risk of these other effects.
Much of our knowledge about the risks from radiation is based on studies of over 100,000 survivors of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In these studies, which have continued over the last 40 years, scientists have been able to observe the effects of a wide range of radiation doses, including doses comparable to an average person's lifetime dose from naturally-occurring background radiation (about 20,000 millirem). We have learned many things from these studies. The most important are:
The more radiation dose a person receives, the greater the chance of developing cancer.
It is the chance of cancer occurring, not the kind or severity of cancer, that increases as the radiation dose increases.
Most cancers do not appear until many years after the radiation dose is received (typically 10 to 40 years).
Current evidence suggests that any exposure to radiation poses some risk, i.e., there is no level below which we can say an exposure poses no risk. For the entire dose of radiation we accumulate over a lifetime from natural background radiation, the risk of developing cancer is estimated to be about one in one hundred. Based on this estimate, several percent of all fatal cancers in the U.S. are caused by background radiation. The additional contribution from all man-made sources of radiation is much smaller.