The radioactivity is one of the most interesting and perhaps more dangerous things that happen in nature. Radioactivity is a nuclear power which occurs when certain chemicals or radioactive substances react with radiation which is used to impress a photographic layer, to produce fluorescence, or to pass through opaque bodies in ordinary light, etc.
Such radiation can be natural or artificial, and are issued primarily by alpha particles, beta and gamma rays (X rays), which occur due to the instability of some atoms like uranium, radium and thorium.
What exactly happens when there is radioactivity?
During a process of radioactivity, the nuclei of atoms like uranium, radium, etc., disintegrate forming new cores that correspond to new elements. In this process there is a tremendous release of energy.
Natural and artificial radioactivity
There are two types of radioactivity: the natural and artificial. The natural radioactivity occurs when the nuclei of unstable atoms or heavy items are split or disintegrate spontaneously, releasing energy and producing new nuclei.
On the other hand, the artificial radioactivity occurs when the nuclei of stable atoms are split or "break" but not spontaneously, but due to particle bombardment to make this happen. Henry Becquerel (French physicist) in 1896, was the one who accidentally discovered the process of radioactivity. Rutherford, in 1919, won the first generation of artificial radioactivity by bombarding nuclei with alpha particles of nitrogen.
Radioactive elements are those that are unstable and heavy. In 1898, the Curie family, students of physical radiation observed by Becquerel, discovered two new radioactive elements: polonium and radium.
What are the characteristics of a radioactive phenomenon?
There are emissions from a radioactive material. These emissions don’t depend on the state of liberty or a combination, i.e. it’s not different if it’s a simple substance or compound. Radiation is independent of factors involved in chemical reactions.
Alpha, Beta and Gamma Rays
The radiation may be due to the release of alpha rays (a), Beta or X-ray
Alpha rays consist of particles of both positive and negative power and which are slightly offset by the action of strong magnetic forces. They can ionize the gas and penetrate the area. These rays have low energy which travels a few centimeters in air and can be stopped by a sheet of paper or a hand. Smoke detectors use it.
Beta rays are of lower mass than the alpha rays and are negatively charged, they are of medium energy and can penetrate air and paper, but an aluminum plate is enough to stop it.
Gamma rays have a different nature than alpha and beta rays, since they do not experience diversion by electric and/or magnetic fields. They are very high energy beams, cross air, paper and even metal, sometimes they can be absorbed by inches of lead (although they cross lead plates), cover great distances in air, have no air or mass. They can be stopped or hindered by thick layers of lead or meters of concrete. They are used to sterilize and in the treatment of cancer.
Why is radioactivity harmful to living things?
Because they are rays that can penetrate and lead to chemical transformations in living matter. When an organism is exposed to radiation, the natural metabolism of the cells is affected, the radiation interferes with vital functions of cells and causes a range of effects that decompensate and unbalance the natural functions in organs, tissues and cells.
However, the radioactivity is a double-edged sword: it can be supportive of medicine or can severely damage a person; it can be administered as a medicine or can cause lethal effects. It all depends on how it is used.
Harmful exposure to radioactivity
If we think in a sunburn on the skin, we can imagine its effects: pain, dry skin (burned) or red, dehydration, burning, etc. This is because the sun's ultraviolet rays cause chemical changes in the skin which can even kill cells. However, we have seen the damaged skin in the healing process; it follows a natural process of self-regeneration.
The radioactivity can cause damage equivalent to those caused by sun unlike this not only damages the skin but the rest of the body. These burns may be permanent if they occur in organs that can’t regenerate, as the brain, for example. In addition, organs, tissues and systems can be severely damaged when the exposure to alpha, beta and gamma has been long and at high doses.
What are the effects of radiation on the body?
Although radioactivity is a natural phenomenon and has existed since the Earth was formed, the artificial radioactivity can collide with atoms and damage its structure. Radiation can cause various effects on the body such as severe burns, metabolic imbalances, cell and tissue damage, affected cell or distorted information, damage to structures, etc. All these effects can lead to various bodily manifestations:
- Cancer, tumors, etc..: This happens when the exposure to radiation doses received are small but prolonged.
- Effects that cause genetic mutations: are also produced by exposure in small doses but frequent and prolonged.
- Effects on embryo during pregnancy: the embryo is especially sensitive to radiation.
- Burns and damage to tissues caused by excessive exposure: usually happens when there are explosions or nuclear accidents.
Is it unsafe the use of radioactive or nuclear plants?
The radioactivity can cause severe health problems and affect the same nature. However, technological and scientific advances have made some measurement and control techniques using radioactive materials to prolong life and in some cases not only extend but to preserve it, this advanced so much that now we have radiation therapy to treat diseases like cancer or tumors.
It seems that the key of use of radioactivity is learning, like everything in nature, to handle and use it wisely and without ambition, and always try to use the simpler and more natural alternative to solve health.