Biological Effects of Radiation

Whether the source of radiation is natural or man-made, whether it is a small dose of radiation or a large dose, there will be some biological effects. This chapter summarizes the short and long term consequences which may result from exposure to radiation.
Although we tend to think of biological effects in terms of the effect of radiation on living cells, in actuality, ionizing radiation, by definition, interacts only with atoms by a process called ionization. Thus, all biological damage effects begin with the consequence of radiation interactions with the atoms forming the cells. As a result, radiation effects on humans proceed from the lowest to the highest levels as noted in the above list. Even though all subsequent biological effects can be traced back to the interaction of radiation with atoms, there are two mechanisms by which radiation ultimately affects cells. These two mechanisms are commonly called direct and indirect effects.
If radiation interacts with the atoms of the DNA molecule, or some other cellular component critical to the survival of the cell, it is referred to as a direct effect. Such an interaction may affect the ability of the cell to reproduce and, thus, survive. If enough atoms are affected such that the chromosomes do not replicate properly, or if there is significant alteration in the information carried by the DNA molecule, then the cell may be destroyed by "direct" interference with its life-sustaining system.
Radiolytic Decomposition of Water in a Cell
If a cell is exposed to radiation, the probability of the radiation interacting with the DNA molecule is very small since these critical components make up such a small part of the cell. However, each cell, just as is the case for the human body, is mostly water. Therefore, there is a much higher probability of radiation interacting with the water that makes up most of the cell's volume. When radiation interacts with water, it may break the bonds that hold the water molecule together, producing fragments such as hydrogen (H) and hydroxyls (OH). These fragments may recombine or may interact with other fragments or ions to form compounds, such as water, which would not harm the cell. However, they could combine to form toxic substances, such as hydrogen peroxide (H O ), which can 2 2 contribute to the destruction of the cell.

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