Frequently Asked Questions about Radiation

March 24, 2011

What Is Radiation?

Radioactivity is the natural process of unstable atoms releasing their excess energy. This emission, or giving up energy, is called radiation. Light, heat and sound are types of radiation.

Is it true that we are all exposed to radiation daily?

Yes. It is important to understand that people are exposed to natural radiation on a daily basis. The radiation comes from the sun, from natural materials found in the ground, water and air, from our televisions, cell phones and computers, and from every structure around us. Levels of exposure to natural radiation also depend on local geology and elevation.

People can also be exposed to radiation from chemotherapy or medical equipment such as X-ray machines.

What’s the risk from the current nuclear power emergency in Japan?

At present, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) says Japan’s nuclear emergency presents no danger to the United States. The NRC is involved in the Japan emergency both at home and in Japan.

What is the impact of the event in Japan on people in the United States?

At this time, there is no indication that materials from the incidents in Japan have the potential to have any significant radiological effect on the U.S.

"Given the thousands of miles between the two countries, Hawaii, Alaska, the U.S. Territories and the U.S. West Coast are not expected to experience any harmful levels of radioactivity." NRC Press Release 13 March 2011

What is being done assess the risk?

The situation is being monitored closely in conjunction with many state and federal partners. This monitoring will continue to follow the effects of the damaged nuclear power plants as long as there are potential concerns.

Is there a plan in place to respond to a radiological emergency?

Yes, local and state health departments as well as emergency response agencies all work closely with the federal partners, including the Environmental Protection Agency, US Department of Energy, FEMA and Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In the event that a threat to the United States is detected, a coordinated response will rapidly follow.

What are the harmful types of radiation that might be released from a damaged nuclear reactor?

There are 3 primary types of ionizing radiation to be concerned about, gamma, beta and alpha emitters.

  1. Gamma radiation is a high energy wave of radiation (similar to x-rays) that readily penetrates clothing and skin but is only a threat to those in the immediate area of the reactor. Gamma radiation can travel hundreds of feet.

  2. Beta radiation particles can be broadcast via the atmosphere. They pass a few centimeters through intact skin, but are generally stopped by a layer of clothing. The biggest threat is if they are inhaled, ingested or deposited on a wound. Beta radiation can travel up to 30 feet.

  3. Alpha radiation particles can be broadcast via the atmosphere. They may be stopped by a sheet of paper or even intact skin. Like beta particles, the biggest threat is if they are inhaled, ingested or deposited on a wound. Alpha radiation can travel up to 2 inches.

What are the health effects of radiation exposure?

    • Radiation exposure does not necessarily translate into radiation poisoning. Radiation must be incorporated into the body in sufficient quantities before harmful effects occur.

    • The risks from radiation always depends on the amount of radiation in the atmosphere, the distance from the radiation source, and whether there is any shielding between the source and a person.

    • Radiation can be dangerous if the dose of radiation exceeds a certain level. If a nuclear power plant is damaged, adverse health effects are most often seen among the first responders and nuclear power plant workers. This is because they are working in the accident area where they are more likely to be exposed to higher levels of radiation that may cause immediate effects. Some of the immediate effects show up as skin redness, hair loss, and burns.

    • In a nuclear power plant accident, only those individuals relatively close to the source are exposed to enough radiation to cause these effects. The thousands of miles that separate the US from Japan will act as a buffer to the radiation that has been released as a result of this accident.

What are the long-term effects from radiation exposure?

    • Exposure to high levels of radiation could increase the risk of cancer. For instance, among the atomic bomb survivors after World War II, the risk of leukemia increased a few years after radiation exposure. The risks of other cancers increased after more than 10 years following the exposure to high amounts of radiation.

    • The type and estimated total dose of radiation are used to assess human risk. Until the radiation is analyzed by experts, there is not enough information to predict the potential impacts of the radiation upon people and the environment.

How does radiation become a health hazard during a nuclear power plant accident?

    • If radiation is released from a nuclear power plant during an accident, the radioactive particles might become airborne.

    • Those particles that drift in the atmosphere could settle on water and land. If the particles come in contact with people, there is a possibility of radiation contamination both internal (breathing and eating) and external.

    • If there has been external contamination, such as radioactive particles falling on the skin, you may be advised to take a shower.

How can I protect myself?

    • It is important to remember that according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, there is no risk to anyone in the United States at this time. The Environmental Protection Agency has permanent radiation monitoring stations on the West coast and stations have been set up in Hawaii. The EPA is keeping federal agencies informed.

    • Keep yourself and your family informed by obtaining accurate information. Know where to get information, such the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and your state health department, rather than relying on unverified Web sites, where invalid information may spread quickly.

    • Follow the instructions of your local government’s authorities after any emergency.

Where can I find more information?

Illinois citizens with questions about radiation exposure can contact the Illinois Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222.

lDPH Press Release: Illinois residents advised not to take Potassium Iodide (KI)

Centers for Disease Control Radiation Information -under "2011 Japan Earthquake and Tsunami" see Current Situation Updates from the federal government as well as Radiation and Health, Radiation and Treatment and Information for Specific Groups.

Centers for Disease Control Travel Information

Customs and Border Protection  - Statement concerning radiation monitoring of travelers, goods from Japan.

Environmental Protection Agency  - Latest on event from the EPA.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration - Latest Questions and Answers on Food Safety.

REAC/TS - Quick Reference Information – Radiation