The Effects of Background Radiation

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Humans encounter background radiation every day. Most of the radiation people get exposed to does not occur in high enough concentrations to cause any ill effects. If the background radiation rises above acceptable levels, the affected area experiences higher incidents of certain diseases. Certain building materials expose the residents to higher levels of background radiation than others.

Effects of Radiation

Radiation can damage or kill cells. Radiation also causes mutations to a person's genetic code. The repair systems of the human body repair most of the cellular damage. The body replaces dead cells killed by radiation exposure through the same biological processes that it uses to replace other cells. Exposure to high levels of radiation causes a condition known as radiation sickness.

Safe Levels of Exposure

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not let its licensees expose the public to more than 100 millirems of background radiation. Humans suffer few ill effects when the background radiation remains within these levels.

Building Materials and Background Radiation

Buildings made from brick and stone give off more background radiation than buildings made from wood. The granite of the United States Capitol building gives off higher levels of background radiation than homes made of brick or stone, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission website.

Ionizing Radiation

Ionizing radiation causes many forms of cancer. This type of radiation causes leukemia and cancers of the breast, bladder, lung, esophagus, stomach, multiple myeloma and ovarian cancers. A link may also exist between ionizing radiation and cancers of the pancreas, sinuses and larynx. People respond differently to the same levels of radiation. Even exposure to safe levels of radiation may increase a person's risk of developing cancer.

Maximum Work Environment Exposure

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission set the maximum exposure in a work environment at 5,000 millirems per year. Firefighters who battled the blaze after the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl received up to 80,000 millirems. Twenty-eight firefighters died within three days after the disaster due to acute radiation syndrome.


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  • Radiation flag image by Stasys Eidiejus from