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The discovery of radioactivity, in general, actually came about on a few different

fronts. First was the discovery of X-ray radiation that was artificially generated in a
laboratory, followed by the discovery of several elements that naturally emit radiation
when the nucleus of the atoms disintegrate or decay. These are the elements that
today are called radioactive elements and are said to have unstable nuclei.
Just before the turn of the last century, in the mid to late 1890's, several scientists
were working with cathode ray tubes investigating properties of fluorescent minerals.
Fluorescent minerals are certain minerals that glow when exposed to sunlight. At
the same time, other scientists were busy gathering evidence on the theory that the
atom could be divided into even smaller subatomic particles. Some of this new
evidence showed that certain types of atoms disintegrate by themselves.
First, the discovery of X-rays

In late 1895, a German physicist, W. C. Roentgen was working with a cathode ray
tube in his laboratory. He was working with tubes similar to our fluorescent light
bulbs. He evacuated the tube of all air, filled it with a special gas, and passed a high
electric voltage through it. When he did this, the tube would produce a fluorescent
glow. Roentgen shielded the tube with heavy black paper, and found that a green
colored fluorescent light could be seen coming from a screen setting a few feet away
from the tube. He realized that he had produced a previously unknown "invisible
light," or ray, that was being emitted from the tube; a ray that was capable of passing
through the heavy paper covering the tube. Through additional experiments, he also
found that the new ray would pass through most substances casting shadows of
solid objects on pieces of film. He named the new ray X-ray, because in mathematics
"X" is used to indicated the unknown quantity.
In his discovery Roentgen found that the X-ray would pass
through the tissue of humans leaving the bones and
metals visible. One of Roentgens first experiments late in
1895 was a film of his wife Bertha's hand with a ring on
her finger (shown below). The news of Roentgens
discovery spread quickly throughout the world. Scientists
everywhere could duplicate his experiment because the
cathode tube was very well known during this period.

Next, the discovery of radioactive elements

Subsequent to Roentgen's discovery of X-rays, in 1896 a French scientist Henri

Becquerel was experimenting with a uranium compound. While investigating the
properties of fluorescent minerals, it was Becquerel who discovered that certain
types of atoms disintegrate by themselves. When working on the principles of
fluorescence, he utilized photographic film to record fluorescence
of various minerals when exposed to sunlight.
One of the minerals Becquerel worked with was a uranium
compound. The experiment normally consisted of wrapping some
photographic film in light proof paper, placing a piece of
fluorescent uranium on top of the film, and leaving them in the
sun. One day, after preparing the experiment, it was too cloudy to
expose his samples to direct sunlight, so he stored the uranium
compound and the film in a drawer. A couple of days later, he decided to develop this
film anyway, and discovered an image of the uranium sample on the film. Becquerel
questioned what would have caused this. He knew he had wrapped the film tightly in
light proof paper, so the image was not due to stray light.
In addition, he noticed that only the film that was in the drawer with the uranium
compound had an image on it. Becquerel concluded that the uranium compound
gave off something invisible that could penetrate heavy paper and affect
photographic film. Becquerel continued to test many samples of compounds and
determined that the source of the invisible something was the element uranium. This
invisible something was named radiation, and it was determined that an element
that gives off radiation is a radioactive element. Today, we know uranium as one of
the radioactive elements. For his discovery of radioactivity, Becquerel was awarded
the 1903 Nobel Prize for physics.
Other scientists hard at work discovering radioactive elements were Polish scientist
Marie Curie and her husband Pierre Curie, a French scientist. While working in
France at the time of Becquerels discovery, they became very interested in his work.
They too suspected that a uranium ore, known as pitchblende, contained other
radioactive elements. The Curies started looking for these other elements, and in
1898 they discovered another radioactive element in pitchblende. They named it
`polonium in honor of Marie Curies native homeland. Later that same year, the
Curies discovered another radioactive element which they named radium. Both
polonium and radium were more radioactive than uranium.
For their work on radioactivity, the Curies were awarded the 1903 Nobel Prize in
physics. In 1910, Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for her
discoveries of radium and polonium, thus becoming the first person to receive two
Nobel Prizes. Since these discoveries, many other radioactive elements have been

discovered or produced. Today many artificial radioactive materials

are produced and put to use in various ways ranging from medical
to industrial.


How do atomic particles interact?

There are forces within the atom that account for the behavior of the protons,
neutrons, and electrons. Without these forces, an atom could not stay together.
Recall that protons have a positive charge, electrons a negative charge, and
neutrons are neutral. According to the laws of physics, like charges repel each
other and unlike charges attract each other.

So what makes the protons stay together in an atom?

A force called the strong force opposes and overcomes the force of repulsion
between the protons and holds the nucleus together. The net energy associated with
the balance of the strong force and the force of repulsion is called the binding
energy. The electrons are kept in orbit around the nucleus because there is an
electromagnetic field of attraction between the positive charge of the protons and the
negative charge of the electrons.
Does the nucleus of an atom ever lose particles?
In some atoms, the binding energy is great enough to hold the nucleus together. The
nucleus of this kind of atom is said to be stable. In some atoms the binding energy is
not strong enough to hold the nucleus together, and the nuclei of these atoms are
said to be unstable. Unstable atoms will lose neutrons and protons as they attempt
to become stable.
What is radioactivity?

Atoms with unstable nuclei are constantly changing as a result of the imbalance of
energy within the nucleus. When the nucleus loses a neutron, it gives off energy and
is said to be radioactive. Radioactivity is the release of energy and matter that
results from changes in the nucleus of an atom.

List of Radioactive Elements

All of the naturally occurring radioactive elements are concentrated between atomic
numbers 84 and 118 on the periodic table, though Tc and Pm are an exception. Also
note that there is a break between 110 and 118 on the table, which are suspected
radioactive elements that have yet to be discovered. 29 radioactive elements have
been identified by scientists to date:

Technetium (TC)

- Transition metal

Promethium (Pm)

- Rare earth metal

Polonium (Po)

- Metalloid

Astatine (At)

- Halogen

Radon (Rn)

- Noble gas

Francium (Fr)

- Alkali Metal

Radium (Ra)

- Alkali Earth Metal

Actinium (Ac)

- Rare Earth metal

Thorium (Th)

- Rare Earth Metal

Protactinium (Pa)

- Rare Earth Metal

Uranium (U)

- Rare Earth Metal

Neptunium (Np)

- Rare Earth Metal

Plutonium (Pu)

- Rare Earth Metal

Americium (Am)

- Rare Earth Metal

Curium (Cm)

- Rare Earth Metal

Berkelium (Bk)

- Rare Earth Metal

Californium (Cf)

- Rare Earth Metal

Einsteinium (Es)

- Rare Earth Metal

Fermium (Fm)

- Rare Earth Metal

Mendelevium (Md)

- Rare Earth Metal

Nobelium (No)

- Rare Earth Metal

Lawrencium (Lr)

- Rare Earth Metal

Rutherfordium (Rt) or Kurchatovium (Ku)

- Transition Metal

Dubnium (Db) or Nilsborium (Ns)

- Transition Metal

Seaborgium (Sg)

- Transition Metal

Bohrium (Bh)

- Transition Metal

Hassium (Hs)

- Transition Metal

Meitnerium (Mt)

- Transition Metal

What is a radioisotope?
It is known that isotopes are variants of an element that, while all having the same
number of protons, have differing numbers of neutrons. These variants are called
isotopes. Because the like charges of the protons repel each other, there are always
forces trying to push the atom nucleus apart. The nucleus is held together by
something called the binding energy.
In most cases, elements like to have an equal number of protons and neutrons
because this makes them the most stable. Stable atoms have a binding energy that
is strong enough to hold the protons and neutrons together. Even if an atom has an
additional neutron or two it may remain stable. However, an additional neutron or
two may upset the binding energy and cause the atom to become unstable. In an
unstable atom, the nucleus changes by giving off a neutron to get back to a balanced
state. As the unstable nucleus changes, it gives off radiation and is said to be
radioactive. Radioactive isotopes are often called radioisotopes.
All elements with
atomic numbers
greater than 83
are radioisotopes
these elements
nuclei and are
atomic numbers
of 83 and less,
(stable nucleus)
and most have at
least one radioisotope (unstable nucleus). As a radioisotope tries to stabilize, it may
transform into a new element in a process called transmutation.
What is radioactive decay?
Radioactive decay is the spontaneous breakdown of an atomic nucleus resulting in
the release of energy and matter from the nucleus. A radioisotope has an unstable
nucleus that does not have enough binding energy to hold the nucleus together.
Radioisotopes would like to be stable isotopes so they are constantly changing to try
and stabilize. In the process, they release energy and matter from their nucleus and
often transform into a new element. This process, called transmutation, is the
change of one element into another as a result of changes within the nucleus. The
radioactive decay and transmutation process continue until a new element is formed

that has a stable nucleus and is not radioactive. Transmutation can occur naturally or
by artificial means.
Not all of the atoms of a radioisotope decay at the same time, but they decay at a
rate that is characteristic to the isotope. The rate of decay is a fixed rate called a
half-life. The half-life of a radioisotope describes how long it takes for half of the
atoms in a given mass to decay. Some isotopes decay very rapidly and, therefore,
have a high specific activity. Others decay at a much slower rate.
How do you measure the decay of radioactive isotopes?
The basic unit of measure for describing the activity (radioactivity) of a quantity of
radioactive material is the curie, named after Marie Curie. A quantity of radioactive
material is considered to have an activity of 1 curie or 1 C, when 37 billion of its
atoms decay (disintegrate) in one second. In scientific terms, this is expressed by the
equation: 1C = 3.7 X 1010 disintegrations/sec. Each isotope has its own decay
pattern. If the rate of decay is greater than 37 billion atoms in one second, then the
source would have an activity greater than one curie, and if that source had fewer
than 37 billion atoms decaying in one second, its activity would be less than one

Each radioactive isotope has its own decay pattern. Not only does it decay by
giving off energy and matter, but it also decays at a rate that is characteristic
to itself. The rate at which a radioactive isotope decays is measured in halflife. The term half-life is defined as the time it takes for one-half of the atoms
of a radioactive material to disintegrate. Half-lives for various radioisotopes
can range from a few microseconds to billions of years. The table below lists
radioisotopes and their unique half-lives.



0.0018 seconds


60.5 seconds


15 hours


8.07 days


5.26 years


1600 years


4.5 billion years

How does the half-life affect an isotope?

Suppose you have 10 grams of Barium-139. It has a half-life of 86 minutes. After 86
minutes, half of the atoms in the sample would have decayed into another element,
Lanthanum-139. Therefore, after one half-life, you would have 5 grams of Barium139, and 5 grams of Lanthanum-139. After another 86 minutes, half of the 5 grams of
Barium-139 would decay into Lanthanum-139; you would now have 2.5 grams of
Barium-139 and 7.5 grams of Lanthanum-139.

How is half-life information used in carbon dating?

The half-lives of certain types of radioisotopes are very useful to know. They allow us
to determine the ages of very old artefacts. Scientists can use the half-life of Carbon14 to determine the approximate age of organic objects less than 40,000 years old.
By determining how much of the carbon-14 has transmutated, scientist can calculate
and estimate the age of a substance. This technique is known as Carbon dating.
Isotopes with longer half-lives such as Uranium-238 can be used to date even older
Uses of the half-life in NDT
In the field of non-destructive testing radiographers (people who produce
radiographs to inspect objects) also use half-life information. A radiographer who
works with radioisotopes needs to know the specific half-life to properly determine
how much radiation the source in the camera is producing so that the film can be
exposed properly. After one half-life of a given radioisotope, only one half as much of
the original number of atoms remains active. Another way to look at this is that if the
radiation intensity is cut in half; the source will have only half as many curies as it
originally had. It is important to recognize that the intensity or amount of radiation is
decreasing due to age but not the penetrating energy of the radiation. The energy of
the radiation for a given isotope is considered to be constant for the life of the
Carbon dating uses the half-life of Carbon-14 to find the approximate age of certain
objects that are 40,000 years old or younger.
What exactly is radiocarbon dating?
Radiocarbon dating is a method of estimating the age of organic material. It was
developed right after World War II by Willard F. Libby and co-workers, and it has
provided a way to determine the ages of different materials in archaeology, geology,
geophysics, and other branches of science. Some examples of the types of material
that radiocarbon can determine the ages of, are wood, charcoal, marine and
freshwater shell, bone and antler, and peat and organic-bearing sediments. Age
determinations can also be obtained from carbonate deposits such as calcite,
dissolved carbon dioxide, and carbonates in ocean, lake, and groundwater sources.
How is carbon-14 produced?
Cosmic rays enter the earth's atmosphere in large numbers every day and when one
collides with an atom in the atmosphere, it can create a secondary cosmic ray in the
form of an energetic neutron. When these energetic neutrons collide with a nitrogen14 (seven protons, seven neutrons) atom it turns into a carbon-14 atom (six protons,
eight neutrons) and a hydrogen atom (one proton, zero neutrons). Since Nitrogen
gas makes up about 78 percent of the Earth's air, by volume, a considerable amount
of Carbon-14 is produced. The carbon-14 atoms combine with oxygen to form

carbon dioxide, which plants absorb naturally and incorporate into plant fibers by
photosynthesis. Animals and people take in carbon-14 by eating the plants.
The ratio of normal carbon (carbon-12) to carbon-14 in the air and in all living things
at any given time is nearly constant. Maybe one in a trillion carbon atoms are
carbon-14. Both Carbon-12 and Carbon-13 are stable, but Carbon-14 decays by
very weak beta decay to nitrogen-14 with a half-life of approximately 5,730 years.
After the organism dies it stops taking in new carbon.
How do scientist use Carbon-14 to determine the age of an artefact?
To measure the amount of radiocarbon left in a artefact, scientists burn a small piece
to convert it into carbon dioxide gas. Radiation counters are used to detect the
electrons given off by decaying Carbon-14 as it turns into nitrogen. In order to date
the artifact, the amount of Carbon-14 is compared to the amount of Carbon-12 (the
stable form of carbon) to determine how much radiocarbon has decayed. The ratio of
carbon-12 to carbon-14 is the same in all living things. However, at the moment of
death, the amount of carbon-14 begins to decrease because it is unstable, while the
amount of carbon-12 remains constant in the sample. Half of the carbon-14
degrades every 5,730 years as indicated by its half-life. By measuring the ratio of
carbon-12 to carbon-14 in the sample and comparing it to the ratio in a living
organism, it is possible to determine the age of the artefact.


Radioactive decay occurs in unstable atomic nuclei that is, ones that dont
have enough binding energy to hold the nucleus together due to an excess of
either protons or neutrons.

It comes in three main types named alpha, beta and gamma

An unstable nucleus, like tritium will eject an energetic electron (beta particle)
and transform into an atom of helium-3 ( 3He )


Common Types of Ionizing Radiations

Naturally occurring radioactive elements include radium, thorium, and uranium. The
three types of radiations are:-

Fast moving

Positively charged 4He+2

High energy negative


High speed electron


High energy
Electromagnetic radiation


An alpha particle is defined as a positively charged particle of helium nuclei.

An alpha particle is composed of two protons and two neutrons. As an alpha
particle breaks away from the nucleus of a radioactive atom, it has no

electrons, so it has a +2 charge. Therefore, its a positively charged particle of

a helium nuclei.

electrons are basically free easy to lose and easy to gain. So normally, an
alpha particle is shown with no charge because it very rapidly picks up two
electrons and becomes a neutral helium atom instead of an ion.

Radon-222 (Rn-222) is an example of alpha particle emitter, as shown in the

following equation:

EXAMPLES: uranium and thorium


A beta particle is essentially an electron thats emitted from the nucleus.

Iodine-131 (I - 131), is a beta particle emitter:

The Iodine-131 gives off a beta particle (an electron), leaving an isotope with
a mass number of 131(1310)and an atomic number of 54(53-(-1)= 1).
Xenon (Xe) atomic number is (54)

Inside iodine nucleus, a neutron was converted (decayed) into a proton and
an electron, and the electron was emitted from the nucleus as a beta particle.
equation: I Xe + e

EXAMPLES: Carbon - 14 into nitrogen - 14:

Magnesium - 23 into sodium - 23


Gamma radiation is very high-energy ionizing radiation. Gamma rays have

about 10,000 times as much energy as the photons.

Gamma rays have no mass and no electrical charge they are pure
electromagnetic energy. Since there is no mass change associated with
gamma emission, they are referred as gamma radiation emission.

Because of their high energy, gamma rays travel at the speed of light. They
can pass through many kinds of materials, including human tissue.


Digging Up the Root of Carbon Dating

Prof Willard F Libby's discovery of carbon dating was reported in New York Times on
Dec 28, 1967, two years before Dec 6, 1949 article reporting its implications and use
for determining age of objects. The discovery of the principle behind carbon dating
was reported in The New York Times two years before its remarkable implications
were widely understood.
On Dec. 28, 1947, in a roundup of the years events in atomic physics, Waldemar
Kaempffert wrote that Prof. Willard F. Libby and his colleagues discovered that
radioactive carbon 14 is produced by cosmic rays and that there is enough of it in all
living matter to constitute one of the most important sources of radiation to which the
human body is exposed.
Two years later, the importance of the discovery had become clear. Scientist
Stumbles Upon Method to Fix Age of Earths Material read the headline of an
unsigned article on Page 29 of The Times on Sept. 6, 1949, marking the first time
that readers learned of radiocarbon dating.
The article said that Dr. Libby, a 40-year-old chemistry professor at the University of
Chicago, Stumbled on the technique two years ago when studying cosmic ray
action on the atmosphere. Then it offered a brief explanation of the method, saying
that living materials contain radioactive carbon that decays after death at a known
rate, and that this rate can be used to determine with great accuracy when a plant or
animal died.
We have reason to believe that ages up to 15,000 to 20,000 years can be measured
with some accuracy, Dr. Libby told The Times.
Today, the technique continues to be refined, and dates of prehistoric objects and
events are sometimes modified. As recently as last summer, Kenneth Chang
reported that the newest techniques and equipment had been used to revise the
dates of the period that Neanderthals and modern humans lived together in Europe.
But all of this depends on the principle that Dr. Libby was the first to elucidate, and
his contribution did not go unnoticed. As The Times reported on Nov. 6, 1960, Dr.
Libby was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The Nobel Committee cited him
for his method to use carbon 14 for age determination in archaeology, geology,
geophysics and other branches of science.

Radiocarbon Dating
Radiocarbon or Carbon-14 dating is a technique used by scientist to date bones,
wood, paper and cloth. Carbon-14 is a radioisotope of Carbon. It is produced in the
Earths upper atmosphere when Nitrogen-14 is broken down to form the unstable
Carbon-14 by the action of cosmic rays. The unstable Carbon-14 is transported
down to the lower atmosphere by atmospheric activity such as storms.

Carbon-14 reacts identically to Carbon-12 and is rapidly oxidised to form (Carbon14) Dioxide. Since all living organisms on Earth are made up of organic molecules
that contain Carbon atoms derived from the atmosphere, they therefore contain
Carbon-14 atoms. The Carbon-14 within a living organism is continually decaying,
but as the organism is continuously absorbing Carbon-14 throughout its life the ratio
of Carbon-14 to Carbon-12 atoms in the organism is the same as the ratio in the
atmosphere. Once an organism dies it stops taking in Carbon in any form. The
unstable Carbon-14 within the organism begins to decay to form Nitrogen-14 by
emitting a beta particle. Over time there is a gradual decrease in the amount of
Carbon-14 and the ratio of Carbon-14 atoms to other Carbon atoms declines.

The half life for Carbon-14 is 5730 years. Therefore half of the Carbon-14 has
decayed after 5730 years. Half of the remaining Carbon-14 then decays over the
next 5730 years leaving one fourth of the original amount. By measuring the ratio of
Carbon-14 in a sample and comparing it to the amount in a recently deceased
sample its date can be determined.
Basic Principles of Carbon Dating
Radiocarbon, or carbon 14, is an isotope of the element carbon that is unstable and
weakly radioactive. The stable isotopes are carbon 12 and carbon 13.
Carbon 14 is continually being formed in the upper atmosphere by the effect of
cosmic ray neutrons on nitrogen 14 atoms. It is rapidly oxidized in air to form carbon
dioxide and enters the global carbon cycle.
Plants and animals assimilate carbon 14 from carbon dioxide throughout their
lifetimes. When they die, they stop exchanging carbon with the biosphere and their
carbon 14 content then starts to decrease at a rate determined by the law of
radioactive decay.
Radiocarbon dating is essentially a method designed to measure residual
radioactivity. By knowing how much carbon 14 is left in a sample, the age of the
organism when it died can be known. It must be noted though that radiocarbon
dating results indicate when the organism was alive but not when a material from
that organism was used.

Radiocarbon Datable Materials

Not all materials can be radiocarbon dated. Most, if not all, organic compounds can
be dated. Some inorganic matter, like a shells aragonite component, can also be
dated as long as the minerals formation involved assimilation of carbon 14 in
equilibrium with the atmosphere.
Samples that have been radiocarbon dated since the inception of the method include
charcoal, wood, twigs, seeds, bones, shells, leather, peat, lake mud, soil, hair,
pottery, pollen, wall paintings, corals, blood residues, fabrics, paper or parchment,
resins, and water, among others.
Physical and chemical pre-treatments are done on these materials to remove
possible contaminants before they are analyzed for their radiocarbon content.
Principal Methods of Measuring Radiocarbon
There are three principal techniques used to measure carbon 14 content of any
given sample gas proportional counting, liquid scintillation counting, and
accelerator mass spectrometry.
Gas proportional counting is a conventional radiometric dating technique that
counts the beta particles emitted by a given sample. Beta particles are products of
radiocarbon decay. In this method, the carbon sample is first converted to carbon

dioxide gas before measurement in gas

proportional counters takes place.
Liquid scintillation counting is another
radiocarbon dating technique that was
popular in the 1960s. In this method, the
sample is in liquid form and a scintillator
is added. This scintillator produces a
flash of light when it interacts with a beta
particle. A vial with a sample is passed
between two photomultipliers, and only
when both devices register the flash of
light that a count is made.
Accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) is a modern radiocarbon dating method
that is considered to be the more efficient way to measure radiocarbon content of a
sample. In this method, the carbon 14 content is directly measured relative to the
carbon 12 and carbon 13 present. The method does not count beta particles but the
number of carbon atoms present in the sample and the proportion of the isotopes.

Radiocarbon Dating Standards

The radiocarbon age of a certain sample of unknown age can be determined by
measuring its carbon 14 content and comparing the result to the carbon 14 activity in
modern and background samples.
The principal modern standard used by radiocarbon dating labs was the Oxalic Acid I
obtained from the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland. This
oxalic acid came from sugar beets in 1955. Around 95% of the radiocarbon activity of
Oxalic Acid I is equal to the measured radiocarbon activity of the absolute
radiocarbon standarda wood in 1890 unaffected by fossil fuel effects.
When the stocks of Oxalic Acid I were almost fully consumed, another standard was
made from a crop of 1977 French beet molasses. The new standard, Oxalic Acid II,
was proven to have only a slight difference with Oxalic Acid I in terms of radiocarbon
content. Over the years, other secondary radiocarbon standards have been made.
Standard errors are also reported in a radiocarbon dating result, hence the
values. These values have been derived through statistical means.

Applications/Uses of Radioactivity
There are many practical applications to the use of radioactivity/radiation.
Radioactive sources are used to study living organisms, to diagnose and treat
diseases, to sterilize medical instruments and food, to produce energy for heat and
electric power, and to monitor various steps in all types of industrial processes.
Tracers are a common application of radioisotopes. A tracer is a radioactive element
whose pathway through which a chemical reaction can be followed. Tracers are
commonly used in the medical field and in the study of plants and animals.
Radioactive Iodine-131 can be used to study the function of the thyroid gland
assisting in detecting disease.
Nuclear reactors
Nuclear reactors are devices that control fission reactions producing new
substances from the fission product and energy. Recall our discussion earlier about
the fission process in the making of a radioisotope. Nuclear power stations use
uranium in fission reactions as a fuel to produce energy. Steam is generated by the
heat released during the fission process. It is this steam that turns a turbine to
produce electric energy.

----------Smoke Detector
Alpha radiation is used in some smoke detectors. The alpha particles from
americium-241 bombard air molecules, knocking electrons free. These electrons are
then used to create an electrical current. Smoke particles disrupt this current,
triggering an alarm.
Seismic and Oceanographic Devices
These unmanned devices are often located in isolated locations, such as on
the ocean floor, which limits the practicality of short-term batteries. Strontium-90 is
the most common material used in these alpha decay batteries.
Uses in Medicine
Radioisotopes -- chemicals that emit radiation -- are widely used in medicine. In a
process known as brachytherapy, beta radioisotopes can be used to irradiate areas
inside a patient to prevent the growth of certain tissues. This approach has been

used successfully to prevent the clogging of arterial inserts called stents. In addition,
the emission of beta particles is used indirectly in the medical scanning technique
known as positron emission tomography (PET).
Cancer Treatment
Alpha radiation is used to treat various forms of cancer. This process, called
unsealed source radiotherapy, involves inserting tiny amounts of radium-226 into
cancerous masses. The alpha particles destroy cancer cells but lack the penetrating
ability to damage the surrounding healthy cells.
Gamma rays can kill living cells, they are used to kill cancer cells .This is called
"Radiotherapy", and works because healthy cells can repair themselves fairly well
when damaged by gamma rays - but cancer cells can't.

Uses in Industry
Beta rays have a number of important uses in industrial processes. Since they can
pass through some materials, they are used to gauge the thickness of films of
material coming off production lines such as paper and plastic film. In another
application, the thickness of various coatings, such as paints, can be deduced from
the amount of beta particles scattered back from that surface.
In the US, gamma ray detectors are beginning to be used as part of the Container
Security Initiative (CSI). Gamma-induced molecular changes can also be used to
alter the properties of semi-precious stones, and is often used to change white topaz
into blue topaz.
Other uses of radioactivity
Sterilization of medical instruments and food is another common application of
radiation. By subjecting the instruments and food to concentrated beams of radiation,
we can kill microorganisms that cause contamination and disease. Because this is
done with high energy radiation sources using electromagnetic energy, there is no
fear of residual radiation. Also, the instruments and food may be handled without fear
of radiation/radioactive poisoning. Radiation sources are extremely important to the
manufacturing industries throughout the world.

Alpha Particles

External exposure (external to the body) is of far less concern than internal
exposure, because alpha particles lack the energy to penetrate the outer dead
layer of skin.

However, if alpha emitters have been inhaled, ingested (swallowed), or

absorbed into the blood stream, sensitive living tissue can be exposed to
alpha radiation. The resulting biological damage increases the risk of cancer;
in particular, alpha radiation is known to cause lung cancer in humans when
alpha emitters are inhaled.

The greatest exposures to alpha radiation for average citizens comes from the
inhalation of radon and its decay products, several of which also emit potent
alpha radiation.

Beta Particles

Beta radiation can cause both acute and chronic health effects.

Chronic effects result from fairly low-level exposures over a long period of
time. They develop relatively slowly. The main chronic health effect from
radiation is cancer. When taken internally beta emitters can cause tissue
damage and increase the risk of cancer. The risk of cancer increases with
increasing dose.

Some beta-emitters, such as carbon-14, distribute widely throughout the body.

Others accumulate in specific organs and cause chronic exposures:

Iodine-131 concentrates heavily in the thyroid gland. It increases the risk of

thyroid cancer and other disorders.

Strontium-90 accumulates in bone and teeth

Gamma Particles

Gamma rays can interact with cells in the body and make them non
functional, they can mess up a cell's DNA and cause mutations when it
If you lose too many you can get sick or with massive doses, can die.
There is always a small amount of background radiation coming from
cosmic rays from outer space and from radioactive nucleii found in the earth's

Alpha Particles
A thin piece of light material, such as paper, or even the dead cells in the outer layer
of human skin provides adequate shielding because alpha particles can't penetrate
it. However, living tissue inside body, offers no protection against inhaled or ingested
alpha emitters.
Beta Particles
Additional covering, for example heavy clothing, is necessary to protect against betaemitters. Some beta particles can penetrate and burn the skin.
Gamma Particles
Thick, dense shielding, such as lead, is necessary to protect against gamma rays.
The higher the energy of the gamma ray, the thicker the lead must be. X-rays pose a
similar challenge, so x-ray technicians often give patients receiving medical or dental
X-rays a lead apron to cover other parts of their body.

Latest Research on Radioactive Elements

Although scientists have only known about radiation since the 1890s, they have
developed a wide variety of uses for this natural force. Today, to benefit humankind,
radiation is used in medicine, academics, and industry, as well as for generating
electricity. In addition, radiation has useful applications in such areas as agriculture,
archaeology (carbon dating), space exploration, law enforcement, geology (including
mining), and many others.
Academic and Scientific Applications
Universities, colleges, high schools, and other academic and scientific institutions
use nuclear materials in course work, laboratory demonstrations, experimental
research, and a variety of health physics applications. For example, just as doctors
can label substances inside people's bodies, scientists can label substances that
pass through plants, animals, or our world. This allows researchers to study such
things as the paths that different types of air and water pollution take through the
Similarly, radiation has helped us learn more about the types of soil that different
plants need to grow, the sizes of newly discovered oil fields, and the tracks of ocean
currents. In addition, researchers use low-energy radioactive sources in gas
chromatography to identify the components of petroleum products, smog and
cigarette smoke, and even complex proteins and enzymes used in medical research.
Archaeologists also use radioactive substances to determine the ages of fossils and
other objects through a process called carbon dating. For example, in the upper
levels of our atmosphere, cosmic rays strike nitrogen atoms and form a naturally
radioactive isotope called carbon-14. Carbon is found in all living things, and a small
percentage of this is carbon-14. When a plant or animal dies, it no longer takes in
new carbon and the carbon-14 that it accumulated throughout its life begins the
process of radioactive decay. As a result, after a few years, an old object has a lower
percent of radioactivity than a newer object. By measuring this difference,
archaeologists are able to determine the object's approximate age.
Similarly, radiation is used to help remove toxic pollutants, such as exhaust gases
from coal-fired power stations and industry. For example, electron beam radiation
can remove dangerous sulphur dioxides and nitrogen oxides from our environment.
Closer to home, many of the fabrics used to make our clothing have been irradiated
(treated with radiation) before being exposed to a soil-releasing or wrinkle-resistant
chemical. This treatment makes the chemicals bind to the fabric, to keep our clothing
fresh and wrinkle-free all day, yet our clothing does not become radioactive.
Similarly, nonstick cookware is treated with gamma rays to keep food from sticking to
the metal surface.
The agricultural industry makes use of radiation to improve food production and
packaging. Plant seeds, for example, have been exposed to radiation to bring about
new and better types of plants. Besides making plants stronger, radiation can be
used to control insect populations, thereby decreasing the use of dangerous

pesticides. Radioactive material is also used in gauges that measure the thickness of
eggshells to screen out thin, breakable eggs before they are packaged in egg
cartons. In addition, many of our foods are packaged in polyethylene shrink wrap
that has been irradiated so that it can be heated above its usual melting point and
wrapped around the foods to provide an airtight protective covering.
All around us, we see reflective signs that have been treated with radioactive tritium
and phosphorescent paint. Ionizing smoke detectors, using a tiny bit of americium241, keep watch while we sleep. Gauges containing radioisotopes measure the
amount of air whipped into our ice cream, while others prevent spill over as our soda
bottles are carefully filled at the factory.
Engineers also use gauges containing radioactive substances to measure the
thickness of paper products, fluid levels in oil and chemical tanks, and the moisture
and density of soils and material at construction sites.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has established limits for the
release of radioactivity from nuclear power plants. Although the effects of very low
levels of radiation are difficult to detect, the NRC's limits are based on the
assumption that the public's exposure to man-made sources of radiation should be
only a small fraction of the exposure that people receive from natural background
Experience has shown that, during normal operations, nuclear power plants typically
release only a small fraction of the radiation allowed by the NRC's established limits.
In fact, a person who spends a full year at the boundary of a nuclear power
plant site would receive an additional radiation exposure of less than 1 percent
of the radiation that everyone receives from natural background sources. This
additional exposure, totaling about 1 millirem (a unit used in measuring radiation
absorption and its effects), has not been shown to cause any harm to human beings.
Radioactive Drug Research Committee (RDRC) Program
The Radioactive Drug Research Committee (RDRC) program began when the Food
and Drug Administration published a Federal Register notice on July 25, 1975
classifying all radioactive drugs as either new drugs requiring an Investigational New
Drug Application (IND) for investigational use (21 CFR 312) or as generally
recognized as safe and effective when administered under the conditions specified in
the RDRC regulations (21 CFR 361.1).

IAEA, Research Reactors database