HomeWorld NewsAre Bananas 'Radioactive'? Learn expert opinion on common misconceptions about radiation

Are Bananas ‘Radioactive’? Learn expert opinion on common misconceptions about radiation

Wollongong: Usually the general mention of ‘radiation’ often creates fear in people. Some people find it funny that exposure to radiation can turn you into the next superhero, like the Hulk. But is it true that basically everything around us is radioactive, even the food we eat? You may have heard that bananas are mildly radioactive, but what does that really mean? And despite our not being superheroes, are human bodies also radioactive? What is radiation? Radiation is the energy that travels from one point to another in the form of waves or particles. We are exposed to radiation from various natural and artificial sources every day.

Cosmic radiation from the Sun and outer space, radiation from rocks and soil, as well as the air we breathe and radioactivity in our food and water, are all sources of natural radiation. Bananas are a common example of a natural radiation source. They contain high levels of potassium, and small amounts of it are radioactive. But there’s no need for you to give up your banana smoothie—as the amount of radiation in it is much lower, and far less than the natural “background radiation” we’re exposed to every day. Artificial sources of radiation include medical treatments and X-rays, mobile phones and power lines. There is a common misconception that artificial sources of radiation are more dangerous than naturally occurring radiation. However, this is not true.

What is the difference between radiation and radioactivity?
There are no physical properties that make artificial radiation different or more harmful than natural radiation. Harmful effects are related to the quantity, not where the radiation comes from. What is the difference between radiation and radioactivity? The terms “radiation” and “radioactivity” are often used interchangeably. Though the two are related, they are not the same. Radioactivity refers to an unstable atom that is undergoing radioactive decay. Energy is released as radiation as the atom tries to reach stability, or becomes non-radioactive. The radioactivity of a material describes the rate at which it decays, and describes the process(s) by which it decays. So radioactivity can be thought of as the process by which elements and materials try to become stable, and radiation as the energy released as a result of this process. Ionizing and non-ionizing radiation can be classified into two types on the basis of energy levels.

Ionizing radiation has enough energy to remove an electron from an atom, which can change the chemical composition of a substance. Examples of ionizing radiation include X-rays and radon (a radioactive gas found in rocks and soil). Non-ionizing radiation has less energy but can still excite molecules and atoms, causing them to vibrate rapidly. Common sources of non-ionizing radiation include mobile phones, power lines, and the Sun’s ultraviolet rays (UV). Is all radiation dangerous? Not necessarily, radiation isn’t always dangerous – it depends on the type, strength, and how long you’ve been exposed to it. As a general rule, the higher the energy level of the radiation, the greater the potential for damage.

keeping the risk below the safety threshold
For example, we know that excessive exposure to ionizing radiation – eg, from naturally occurring radon gas – can damage human tissues and DNA. We also know that non-ionizing radiation, such as UV rays from the sun, can be harmful if a person is exposed to it at high intensity levels long enough to cause adverse health effects such as burns, cancer or blindness. Importantly, because these threats are well known and understood, they are preventable. International and national expert bodies provide guidelines to ensure the safety and radiation safety of people and the environment. For ionizing radiation, keeping the amount of natural background radiation reasonably low – eg, using medical imaging only on the required part of the body, keeping the volume low, and maintaining copies of the images to avoid repeat examinations .

For non-ionizing radiation, this means keeping the exposure below a safety threshold. For example, telecommunications equipment uses radiofrequency non-ionizing radiation and must operate within these safety limits. Additionally, in the case of UV radiation from the sun, we know that exposure should be avoided by using sunscreen and clothing when the UV index is level 3 and above. Radiation in Medicine While radiation exposure involves obvious risks, it is also important to recognize the benefits. A common example of this is the use of radiation in modern medicine. Medical imaging uses ionizing radiation techniques such as X-rays and CT scans, as well as non-ionizing radiation techniques, such as ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Like everything else, we’re a little radioactive
This type of medical imaging technique helps doctors see what is happening inside the body. Medical imaging can also help diagnose diseases and prevent serious illness. Radiation can also help treat certain conditions – it can kill cancerous tissue, shrink tumors, or even be used to reduce pain. So is our body also radioactive? The answer is yes, like everything around us, we are a little radioactive. But it’s not something we need to be worried about. Our bodies were built to handle small amounts of radiation – so there is no danger from the amounts we have in our normal daily lives. Just don’t expect this radiation to turn you into a superhero any time soon, because it’s definitely science fiction.

(Sarah Lofran, University of Wollongong)

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