Radiation Exposure: What are the Dangers?

Oluwaseun Adebagbo
March 26, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018

Introduction: Sources of Radiation Exposure

Fig. 1: Bodily Risks from Radiation (Source Wikimedia Commons)

Accidents and disasters involving ionizing radiation are very rare. These kinds of accidents can happen at nuclear power plants, but also in medicine and in the industry. [1] Radiation injury can happen from either external irradiation; external contamination with radioactive materials; or internal contamination by inhalation, ingestion, or transdermal absorption. [2] Three forms of energy are released from a nuclear detonation: heat, shock or bomb blast, and radiation. [2] In addition to this kind of exposure, thermal burns and traumatic injury can occur. [2] Only fairly large amounts of radiation doses can lead to acute medical effects. The resulting illness is dependent on the actual dose and location on body of radiation exposure. [1] Resulting injuries can be anywhere from mild to life threatening (see Fig. 1).

Injuries that Arise from Radiation Exposure

Heat and light cause thermal injury such as flash burns, flame burns, flash blindness , and retinal burns. [2] The blast wave results in fractures, lacerations, rupture of viscera, and pulmonary hemorrhage and edema. Radiation causes the acute radiation syndrome; cutaneous injury and scarring; and, depending on radiation dose and dose rate, increased long-term risk for cancer, infertility, and fetal abnormalities. [2] Although CT scans are clinically useful, there is potential cancer risks exist from associated ionising radiation. [3] Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS), also known as radiation sickness happens after whole-body or significant partial-body irradiation of greater than 1 Gy delivered at a high-dose rate. The most replicative cells have the highest sensitivity to the acute effects of radiation. [2] An example of the resulting illnesses from radiation exposure is the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although the majority of acute deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were due to burns and other forms of physical trauma, at least a third of the victims probably died of radiation sickness. [4] The severity of the radiation sickness depends on the type and amount of radiation, length of exposure, and body types exposed. [5]


ARS treatment includes bone marrow transplants and protein supplements which attempt to help the dramatic decrease in blood cells. Death is highly likely for patients of ARS who have sustained ionizing radiation in excess of 6 Gy. [6] Potassium iodide is for victims whose body is contaminated with radioactive iodine; it prevents absorption of the radioactive iodine. [5] Treatment for burns can include, but is not limited to skin grafting.

© Oluwaseun Adebagbo. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] J. B. Reitan, "Radiation Accidents and Radiation Disasters," Tidsskr. Nor. Laegeforen. 20, 1583 (1983).

[2] J. Waselenko et al., "Medical Management of the Acute Radiation Syndrome: Recommendations of the Strategic National Stockpile Radiation Working Group," Ann. Intern. Med. 14, 1037 (2004).

[3] M. S. Pearce et al., "Radiation exposure from CT Scans in Childhood and Subsequent Risk of Leukaemia and Brain Tumours: A Retrospective Cohort Study," Lancet 380, 499 (2012).

[4] S. C. Finch, "Acute Radiation Syndrome," J. Amer. Med. Assoc. 258, 664 (1987).

[5] M. Golla, "Efforts to Cure Radiation Sickness," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2016.

[6] J. Lee, "Acute Radiation Syndrome," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2012.