Dangers & Uses of Radioactivity

By Russell Huebsch

Radioactivity in popular culture seems to appear on one end of the spectrum or the other, causing panic and death or giving comic book heroes superpowers. When used properly, radioactivity does not pose much danger. In some cases, radioactivity can even help save a life. Reading up on the dangers and uses of radioactivity can help you gain a moderate view of this phenomenon.

What Is Radiation

A common misconception about radiation is that it is a solid object. Popular culture often causes this falsehood. Radioactive elements are often portrayed as glowing, green objects. Radiation actually refers to the transfer of energy from a wave. When you jump into the water, the force of your body "radiates" waves in the pool. The shorter the wavelength, the more energy an object has. Hence, gamma rays emit the most radiation.

Why Is It Considered Dangerous?

Radiation itself is not very harmful, but it can do a great deal of damage when used nefariously. Radiation receives a bad public image because some people try to, and can, use the effects of radiation to harm others. The atomic bomb, for example, takes advantage of clusters of uranium and plutonium exploding on top of each other to create a massive reaction.


Scientists have long known that radiation can cause cancer in humans. Radioactive energy waves are so small that they can pass through the body and harm a person's genetic make up found in their DNA. This is why you see strange mutations in animals and humans exposed to large amounts of radiation. Radiation from the sun can destroy skin cells and cause sunburn.

Medical Use

Radioactive material can be essential in medical care. Since radiation is relatively easy to detect, physicians give patients fairly harmless radioactive pills to find out whether anything is wrong or blocking the body's normal digestive functions or to test new drugs. Nuclear energy from radioactive materials is far cheaper and more effective than fossil fuels, but the terms "nuclear" and "radioactive" generally cause people to protest any new reactor plants.

Radiation In Comic Books

Comic books often use radiation as a sort of "deus ex machina" to explain the origins of superpowers. In the "Spider-Man" series, Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider that turns him into a human/spider hybrid. "The Incredible Hulk" becomes a giant, green mutant after laboratory radiation exposure. The "Fantastic Four" gain their super powers after a nuclear accident. None of these situations are even remotely realistic.