While life on Earth could not survive without the sun’s life-giving radiation, this constant bombardment of energy has its side effects as well. Exposure to sunlight can provide health benefits, but overexposure can lead to life-threatening health problems. Carefully managing your exposure to solar radiation is a key part of maintaining good health.
Impact of Solar Radiation on Earth and Life
Humans require between 1,000 and 2,000 international units (IU) of vitamin D daily for optimum health. Your skin creates vitamin D naturally when exposed to solar radiation, and spending 10 or 15 minutes a day outside can give you all your body needs to stay healthy.
If you cannot spend time outside, or if you live far away from the equator where sunlight is more diffuse, you may need to supplement your vitamin D intake with tablets or fortified foods to get the dosage you need. Sun exposure can also improve certain skin disorders such as psoriasis and vitiligo.
Solar Radiation Definition
In general, radiation is a term that describes some form of energy emission or transmission in the form of a wave or particle. A common form of radiation is electromagnetic radiation in the form of photons such as radio waves, microwaves, and visible light.
Solar radiation that reaches the earth is largely electromagnetic radiation, or photons that are emitted by the sun through nuclear reactions and chemical processes that are taking place inside of the sun and on it's surface.
Types of Solar Radiation
Electromagnetic radiation occurs on a spectrum, and solar radiation that reaches the surface of the earth falls in the ultraviolet (UV), visible, and infrared (IR) portion of the spectrum. We are very familiar with the visible light portion, as it is how we are able to see! When sunlight passes through water droplets in the air, we can see the full spectrum of visible light that is sunlight, which we call a rainbow!
The spectrum also describes photon energy differences; UV photons have more energy than visible light photons, which have more energy than IR photons. High energy photons, in the UV range and above, are considered ionizing radiation. This kind of radiation can be harmful to organisms including humans.
The ultraviolet radiation present in sunlight can also cause damage to your skin. Short exposures to intense sunlight during the summer months can produce painful sunburns, while longer-term exposure to UVA and UVB can damage cells, altering their DNA and possibly leading to skin cancer.
The American Cancer Society recommends the use of sunscreen whenever you spend time outdoors, and regularly examine of any moles, blemishes or other spots on your skin to identify changes that could indicate malignancy. According to the World Health Organization, more than 130,000 malignant melanomas occur each year, many of which result from excessive sun exposure.
Solar radiation can also prove harmful to your eyes. The World Health Organization estimates that 20 percent of all cataracts stem from or are exacerbated by excessive sun exposure, and ultraviolet radiation may increase your chances of other eye diseases as well.
To maximize your safety, choose sunglasses that filter out UVA and UVB rays. Phrases such as “UV absorption up to 400 nm” and “meets ANSI standards” indicate that the glasses block up to 99 percent of damaging radiation from entering your eyes.
The radiation that can cause eye and skin damage is also harmful to microscopic life. Exposing bottled water to sunlight for six hours or more can kill many harmful pathogens, and developing nations often use this technique as a low-cost method of treating water supplies against common bacterial contaminants.
Sunlight has no effect on spores or toxins, however, so you should refrain from drinking suspect water even if you leave it in the sun for a time.
- World Health Organization: Ultraviolet Radation and Human Health
- World Health Organization: Health Effects of UV Radiation
- American Cancer Society: Skin Cancer Prevention and Early Detection
- UV Awareness: UV Exposure & Your Health
- Vitamin D Council: About Vitamin D
- Skin Cancer Foundation: Shining Light on Ultraviolet Radiation
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Solar Disinfection
- Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images