The ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan has highlighted the complex issues surrounding nuclear power and radiation’s dual role as a potential cause of harm and a source of life-saving cancer treatments.
As efforts in Japan continue toward eventually containing the country’s stricken nuclear reactors, the event has caused many of us to re-examine the complex nature and potential risks of nuclear energy and radiation exposure. Dr. Apichart Panichevaluk, a radiologist at Bumrungrad’s Horizon Regional Cancer Center, sheds light on both the health implications of radiation exposure, and the beneficial ways that radiation is being used successfully in the fight against cancer.
In scientific terms, radioactive elements possess “the ability to continuously emit an electromagnetic spectrum until it eventually expires,” explains Dr. Apichart. “It’s understandable that the situation in Japan has stirred up people’s anxieties. In such a situation, we tend to forget that radiation and radioactive elements play important, positive roles in our daily lives – in medical care, manufacturing, agriculture, and more.”
The fact that radiation can’t be seen by the human eye may be part of the added anxiety. “Radiation is invisible, so it can be doing harm without being noticed,” says Dr. Apichart. “Radiation that is converted to ionizing radiation can be absorbed through the skin and into body tissue, where it quickly begins to cause molecular damage that alters the body’s genetic makeup.”
Sources of exposure
There are two main sources of radiation exposure:
External: An external source is located outside the body, such as radiation equipment or radioactive materials in storage. The extent of exposure from an external source depends on the distance between the person and the source, the level of energy in the emitted radiation, and the duration of exposure.
Internal: Exposure is internal when radioactive material passes through the skin or is ingested when breathing or eating. Radiation continues being emitted while the material is inside the body, until it either decays or is flushed out by the body’s digestive system.
Cancer and other risks
Exposure to high levels of radiation can lead to serious, potentially-fatal health problems including leukemia and cancers of the skin, lung, thyroid, breast and stomach. Research conducted on survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and people living in the Chernobyl area established the connection between cancer and exposure to very high levels of radiation.
High-dose exposure produces symptoms including skin rashes and blisters, nausea and/or vomiting, and oral problems such as mouth sores or difficulty swallowing. As radiation is absorbed more deeply into tissues and cells, the resulting damage can impair the healthy production of white blood cells inside bone marrow.
The fact that radiation can produce biological cell changes might lead some to erroneously conclude that all radiation is dangerous. The fact remains: Radiation has been saving lives and restoring health for millions of people. “Although radiation can cause cancer, it is one of the best tools we have to fight cancer,” says Dr. Apichart. “Radiation therapies – delivered through a radiation beam or via the implanting of radioactive seeds – allow doctors to shrink tumors and destroy most of the cancerous cells. A surgeon can then remove any remaining cancer, and prevent it from spreading to other areas. For patients, this means better diagnostic and therapeutic results, with less trauma and fewer side effects than before.”
Dr. Apichart stresses that radiation from X-rays and other medical equipment is emitted at levels considered safe, with the benefits in improved diagnosis and treatment of serious, life-threatening illnesses far outweighing any potential health risks.