Biological Effects

The occurrence of particular health effects from exposure to ionizing radiation is a complicated function of numerous factors including:

  • Type of radiation involved. All kinds of ionizing radiation can produce health effects. The main difference in the ability of alpha and beta particles and Gamma and X-rays to cause health effects is the amount of energy they have. Their energy determines how far they can penetrate into tissue and how much energy they are able to transmit directly or indirectly to tissues.  
  • Size of dose received. The higher the dose of radiation received, the higher the likelihood of health effects.
  • Rate the dose is received. Tissue can receive larger dosages over a period of time. If the dosage occurs over a number of days or weeks, the results are often not as serious if a similar dose was received in a matter of minutes.
  • Part of the body exposed. Extremities such as the hands or feet are able to receive a greater amount of radiation with less resulting damage than blood forming organs housed in the torso. See radiosensitivity page for more information.
  • The age of the individual. As a person ages, cell division slows and the body is less sensitive to the effects of ionizing radiation. Once cell division has slowed, the effects of radiation are somewhat less damaging than when cells were rapidly dividing.
  • Biological differences. Some individuals are more sensitive to the effects of radiation than others. Studies have not been able to conclusively determine the differences.

The effects of ionizing radiation upon humans are often broadly classified as being either stochastic or nonstochastic. These two terms are discussed more in the next few pages.