Radiation Poisoning: Are You at Risk?

The fantastical story of the Russian spy who was poisoned to death with Polonium 210 has developed into a public health scare as traces of the radioactive material was discovered around London and some British Airways aircrafts.

Many folks are worred about environmental contamination and about possible exposure to radiation.

Clearly, this criminal act was committed on purpose, but the bigger question is: did the Polonium only harm the intended victim, former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, or were other people inadvertently harmed as well?

The answer is, it is too soon to tell. The people who had the most immediate contact and were in close proximity to Mr. Litvinenko--doctors, nurses and medical staff--will be carefully screened.

However, one of the biggest fears people have concerns how the material was handled before and after the crime. Those answers will need further investigation. Most of the environmental health hazards of radiation exposure are usually accidental; poor handling or defective equipment. However, the Litvinenko case has many Americans wondering: Am I at risk for radiation exposure?

The truth is that radiation is all around us; we live with it every day but many of us don’t even realize it. We cannot feel, see, taste, smell or hear radiation, but it is there. Radiation is found in many different places; some occur naturally and some is man-made. The health effects of radiation are varied and depend on the amount of radiation absorbed into the body.

While a large amount of radiation exposure to our entire body over a short time will result in death (i.e., close proximity to a nuclear explosion), lower doses of radiation have more minimal risks. There is still much uncertainty about the risks posed by low doses of radiation exposure.

Radiation occurs naturally in our world, there is no hiding from that fact. When we fly in an airplane we are exposed to cosmic radiation because ultraviolet rays are stronger at those high elevations. When we feel the heat from the sunshine, we are feeling the effects of infra-red radiation, and we are also soaking up more UV rays. The food we eat and the water we drink all contain some form of radiation that was present in the soil.

There are also many man-made sources of radiation: cell phones, microwaves, power lines, X-rays, MRI’s, TV’s, smoke detectors... the list goes on.

From a description on the Environment Protection website at www.epa.gov, radiation is energy that travels in the form of waves or high speed particles and makes up the electromagnetic spectrum. There are two categories: ionizing radiation and non-ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation has enough energy to break down molecules by removing electrons (such as medical X-rays), non-ionizing radiation has enough energy to vibrate molecules but not remove electrons (such as in microwaves).

What are the effects of radiation?

When we hear the word “radiation,” most of us immediately think “cancer,” and a treatment in which radiation is used to kill cancer cells. While this is one form of radiation exposure, it is important to know the dosage levels and the effects radiation exposure can have as well as the “safe” sources.

At low doses, such as the radiation used in microwave ovens, infrared heat lamps used to warm food in restaurants, and radio waves, the radiation has very long wave lengths -- a very low frequency. These types of radiation sources pose minimal health risks and heightened concern is not necessary. Although there is no real threshold for a “safe” level of exposure, these low frequency waves pose minimal threat.

Health risks and acute radiation effects come into play when radiation exposure is greater, and exposure is in higher doses or comes from higher frequency energy.

For example, patients undergoing radiation therapy will experience the acute effects of radiation due to the “high bursts” of energy received during treatment. Acute effects include burns, nausea, fatigue, vomiting, hair loss, and more severe effects up to and including death. The EPA's web site lists exposure levels and the acute effects of radiation at higher levels.

Should I be concerned?

At the present time, there is minimal risk of health problems that could arise to the general public in England from this incident.

However, any time there is an environmental alert of radiation exposure, everyone who had the potential of exposure should follow through with proper screening and follow up medical visits.

There is a common household concern that we should all be more aware of: Radon. Radon is an odorless, colorless gas found in rocks and soil. Radon-222 is a naturally-occurring by-product of decaying Uranium-238 and can be commonly found in rocks and soils.

Homeowners that live in an area where surface rocks contain a high amount of uranium should be most concerned, as radon could potentially enter the home through cracks in the foundation. Radon can reach dangerous levels, especially during winter months when the windows and doors are closed for long periods of time. There are radon detectors available to the homeowner to monitor the level in the home.

Who protects Americans from everyday radiation?

Unfortunately, not everyone is aware of radiation sources and the levels of risk associated with exposure. For these reasons we have several government agencies, on both the federal and state levels, that are responsible for researching, testing and providing safety limits to help protect the public.

The Department of Energy (www.energy.gov) as well as the Environmental Protection Agency (www.epa.gov/radiation), both have set exposure guidelines to help in public protection.

Federal agencies are also responsible for the management of nuclear weapons and clean up of contaminated soils (from weapons-related radioactive contamination). The FDA regulates the manufacture of devices that emit radiation, such as cell phones, X-ray equipment, and other medical devices. Without these agencies and their strict guidelines, our risk threat would undoubtedly be much greater.

Although we can’t completely eliminate all risks associated with radiation, we can reduce our risk factors. Using a relatively common sense approach to radiation exposure can help reduce risk.

Distance, Time, and Protection are the three keys to reducing radiation exposure:

--The further you are away from the radiation source the less your risk of exposure.

--The shorter amount of time you are exposed to a radiation source the less your risk.

--The greater the thickness of shielding, the more protection you have against the risk of radiation exposure.

We can all inform ourselves about radiation sources so that we can make intelligent decisions regarding our own potential exposure to radiation.

Even though some radiation exposure is beyond our control, it is important to be aware of the different types of radiation, their effects and “safe” dosage levels.

Dr. Manny Alvarez is the managing editor of health news at FOXNews.com, and is a regular medical contributor on the FOX News Channel. He is chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Additionally, Alvarez is Adjunct Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at New York University School of Medicine in New York City.

Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's senior managing health editor. He also serves as chairman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology and reproductive science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. For more information on Dr. Manny's work, visit AskDrManny.com.