United States
 Environmental Protection Agency
Office of Air and Radiation
Office of Radiation and Indoor Air
May 2007
Risks and  Realities
 Understanding Radiation in Your Life, Your World.



       It's natural and all around us. It comes up from the ground,
       down through the atmosphere, and even from within our own
       bodies. It can be man-made too. But it's nothing new. It's been
       present since the birth of the planet. It's radiation, and radiation
       is, quite simply, part of our lives.

       Naturally-occurring radioactive materials were discovered
       in 1896. Less than 40 years later, physicists discovered that
       radioactive elements can be artificially created. Within a
       decade of this discovery, scientists had split the atom.

       These findings allow us to use radioactive materials for
       beneficial purposes, such as generating electricity and
       diagnosing and treating  medical problems. For these many
       benefits, excessive radiation exposure can also threaten our
       health and the quality of our environment.

       We cannot eliminate radiation from our environment. We can,
       however, reduce our risks  by controlling, to some extent, our
       exposure to it. This booklet presents the major sources and
       uses of radiation, the risks from exposure, and how we can
       limit and reduce these risks.
       For additional radiation information, please visit our website: www.epa.gov/radiation


       What is  Ionizing  Radiation?
                 Matter is composed of atoms. Some atoms are unstable. As unstable atoms
                 change and become more stable, they give off invisible energy waves or particles
                 called radiation.

                 There are different types of radiation, some more energetic than others. One type
                 of radiation, non-ionizing radiation, has enough energy to move atoms but not
                 enough to alter them chemically, like microwaves, radio waves and visible light.
                 This booklet discusses the most energetic form, known as ionizing radiation.
                 Ionizing radiation is capable of removing electrons from atoms and damaging
                 living cells and the DMA of those cells. From here on ionizing radiation will be
                 referred to simply as radiation.

                 In the United States, we measure radiation doses in units called rem. Under the
                 metric system, dose is measured in units called sieverts. One sievert is equal to
                 100 rem. In this document millirems are used when talking about dose. A millirem
                 is one thousandth (1/1000) of a rem.

                 Scientists estimate that the average person in the United States receives a dose
                 of about 360 millirem of radiation per year. Eighty percent of that exposure comes
                 from natural sources - radon gas, the human body, outer space,  and rocks and
                 soil. The remaining 20 percent comes from man-made radiation sources, primarily
                 medical x-rays.

                 Risks from Exposure to Radiation
                 Radiation is known to cause cancer in humans. Radiation can also cause other
                 adverse health effects, including genetic defects in the children of exposed
                 parents or mental retardation in the children of mothers exposed  during
                 pregnancy. The risk of these other effects is much less than the risk of developing
                 cancer due to radiation exposure.

Millirem Doses
Radon in average home
          200 millirem
  Diagnostic radiology
           50 millirem
           30 millirem
      (single procedure)
   Cosmic radioactivity
           27 millirem
           Chest x-ray
             4 millirem
      (single procedure)
                                                               Gastrointestinal series
                                                               1,400 millirem
                                                               (single procedure)
Cosmic radiation living
in Denver
50 millirem

Natural radioactivity
in the body
40 millirem
Terrestrial radioactivity
28 millirem
                                                               Cosmic radiation living
                                                               at sea level
                                                               24 millirem (annual)
Living near a nuclear
power station
< 1 millirem on average

                 Much of our knowledge about the risks from radiation is based on studies of more
                 than 100,000 survivors of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and of
                 people receiving large doses of medical radiation. In these studies, scientists
                 observed health effects across a wide range of radiation doses, including single
                 doses comparable to an average person's lifetime dose from naturally-occurring
                 background radiation (about 20,000 millirem).  We learned many things from
                 these studies.

                 The most important are:
                 ^  The more radiation dose a person receives, the greater the chance of
                    developing cancer.
                 ^  It is the  chance of cancer occurring, not the severity of cancer, that increases
                    as the radiation dose increases.
                 ^  Radiation induced cancers do not appear until years after the radiation dose
                    is received.
                 ^  The risk  from radiation exposure will vary among individuals.

                 Current evidence suggests that any exposure to radiation poses some risk, however,
                 risks at very low exposure levels have not been definitively demonstrated. While
                 experts disagree over the definition of "low dose,"radiation protection measures
                 are based on an assumption that even small amounts of radiation exposure may
                 pose some small  risk. Factoring in the entire dose of natural background radiation
                 accumulated over a lifetime, the risk of developing cancer as a result of this exposure
                 is  estimated to be roughly 1 in 100. The additional contribution from all man-made
                 sources of  radiation is much smaller. It should be noted that all of the long-term
                 health effects associated with exposure to radiation can also occur in people due to
                 other causes.


Natural Radiation
Naturally-occurring radiation accounts for approximately 80 percent of our exposure.
Most of our exposure is from indoor radon, followed by radiation from outer space
and from the Earth's crust.
          Approximately 55 percent of our exposure to radiation comes from radon. Radon is
          a colorless, odorless, tasteless radioactive gas, which comes from the natural decay
          of radium that is found in nearly all rock and soils. Radon usually moves from the
          ground up and migrates into homes and other buildings through openings in any
          ground contact floor or wall. Buildings trap radon inside, where it accumulates and
          may become a health hazard. Any home or building may have a radon problem,
          including new and old homes, well-sealed and drafty homes, and homes with or
          without basements.

          Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. EPA's risk
          model predicts 20,000 Americans die each year from radon-related lung cancer,
          though the actual number could be somewhat higher or lower. Only smoking causes
          more lung  cancer deaths and  smokers exposed to radon are at an even higher risk
          than nonsmokers.

          Radon in the air is measured in picocuries per liter (pCi/L). 1.25 pCi/L is the national
          average for radon levels in homes. Where radon levels are 4 pCi/L or higher, the U.S.
          Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S.  Surgeon General recommend that
          homeowners take action to reduce the radon level. It is estimated that nearly one in
          15 American homes has a radon level that should be reduced. Testing your home is
          the only way to know.

          Controlling the Risks from Radon Exposure
          Testing for radon  is easy and only takes a few minutes. There are many kinds of low-
          cost, "do-it-yourself" radon test kits available by phone, online and in many retail

                 outlets. You can also hire a professional to do the testing. If an elevated radon level
                 is detected in your home, you can reduce it in a variety of ways. Short of building
                 your house with radon protection in mind, the preferred radon reduction technique is
                 an active soil depressurization (ASD) system. Installation also requires the sealing of
                 unwanted entry points for the ASD system to function effectively. An ASD system is
                 basically a vent pipe with an inline centrifugal fan that operates continuously to vent
                 radon (and other soil gases) from beneath the house.

                 EPA leads the national commitment to educate citizens about residential radon
                 risks. To achieve this goal, the Agency coordinates regional and state-level efforts to
                 reduce exposure to radon, or

                 Radiation  from the Ground and from Space
                 Radon is not the only source of naturally-occurring radioactivity. We receive about
                 eight percent of our total exposure to natural  background radiation from other
                 radioactive elements in Earth's crust, such as thorium and potassium. Radiation
                 levels from these sources vary in different areas of the country.

                 Another eight percent of our radiation exposure comes from cosmic radiation from
                 the sun, our galaxy, and other galaxies. Exposure to cosmic radiation depends, in
                 part, on the elevation of where we live.  For example, people who live in Denver,
                 Colorado, which is more than 5,000 feet above sea level, are exposed  to more
                 cosmic radiation than people living in Chicago, Illinois, which is approximately 700
                 feet above sea level.  Exposure to cosmic radiation increases as you rise above sea
                 level. Chicago's thicker atmosphere filters out more cosmic radiation than Denver's
                 thinner atmosphere.
                 For more information about radon, its risks, and what you can do to protect yourseh
                 or to request a fre
e copy of EPA's "A Citizen's Guide to Radon," call the National
                 Radon Hotline at 1-800-SOS-RADON or contact your state's radon office.


Man-Made  Radiation
Since the discovery of radiation, people have benefited from the use of radiation in
medicine and industry. Man-made sources of radiation account for about 20 percent
of our total exposure to radiation.
          Radiation in Medicine
          Radiation used in medicine is the largest source of man-made radiation to which
          people in the United States are exposed. The majority of our man-made radiation
          exposure is from diagnostic x-rays. Physicians use x-rays in more than half of all
          medical diagnoses to determine the extent of disease or physical injury. In the field
          of nuclear medicine, radioactively labeled compounds (radiopharmaceuticals) are
          also used to support diagnoses.

          Another source of radiation exposure is radiation therapy. One-third of all successful
          cancer treatments involve radiation. Precisely targeted radiation destroys
          cancerous cells while limiting damage to nearby healthy cells. In nuclear medicine,
          radiopharmaceuticals can also be  used to treat tumors.  For example, radioactive
          iodine will concentrate in the thyroid gland and can be used to treat thyroid tumors.

          Controlling the Risks of Medical Radiation
          The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the Food and Drug Administration
          (FDA) and other federal and state  agencies regulate medical procedures that use
          radiation. These agencies also issue guidance designed to reduce unnecessary
          use of radiation in diagnosis and treatment and ensure that technicians, equipment,
          and techniques meet standards for minimizing radiation exposure. Since any
          radiation exposure may carry some risk, it is necessary  to decide whether the
          benefits of radiation justify its use.  Health care providers must make the decision to
          use radiation on a case-by-case basis. Before receiving x-rays or any other type of
          medical treatment involving radiation exposure, you may want to discuss the need
          for and benefits of the procedure and its alternatives with your physician.

                 Nuclear Power
                 Nuclear power reactors, which use uranium, supply the United States with about 20
                 percent of its electricity. Nuclear power plant operations account for less than one-
                 hundredth (1/100) of a percent of the average American's total radiation exposure.

                 Controlling the Risks from Nuclear Materials
                 Existing radiation standards have been developed by a number of regulatory
                 authorities, can come with a variety of units and are set at different levels for different
                 issues. What they all have in common is the objective to reduce radiation exposure as
                 much as practical. For example, radiation exposures to workers are allowed at levels
                 significantly higher than for exposure to the public from releases to the environment.
                 Although the radiation exposures differ, in both  cases exposures are controlled to
                 levels that are as low as reasonably achievable under the circumstances.

                 In 1979, EPA issued  environmental standards designed to protect the public from
                 radiation from nuclear energy. Additionally, in 1987, EPA issued guidance for
                 federal agencies to use in the development of radiation exposure standards for
                 workers. These standards limit the amount of radiation that workers in medicine,
                 nuclear power, industry,  mining,  and waste management may receive. The Nuclear
                 Regulatory Commission (NRC) is the federal agency responsible for implementing
                 some of EPA's radiation  exposure standards and  regulating nuclear power reactors
                 and other uses of nuclear materials. The Department of Energy (DOE) also
                 implements these standards at their facilities.

                 All domestic nuclear  power plants must have emergency plans for protecting the
                 public from radiation  exposure from the potential release of radioactive material
                 into the environment. EPA developed guidance for exposure levels at which actions
                 are recommended to protect the public. State and local governments retain primary
                 responsibility for protecting the public and the environment during radiological

emergencies. Several federal agencies also respond to radiological emergencies,
including EPA, the NRC, and the Departments of Homeland Security, Energy,
Agriculture, and Health and Human Services.

Radioactive Waste
Any activity that produces or uses radioactive material generates radioactive waste
that must be disposed of properly. Radioactive waste can be in liquid or solid form,
and its level of radioactivity can vary.  Mining, nuclear power generation, and various
industrial processes, defense weapons production, nuclear medicine, and scientific
research all can produce radioactive waste.  Items and equipment used during
these types of industrial processes and research activities, such as rags, glassware,
plastic bags, protective clothing, tools, and machinery, can become contaminated
with radioactive material and must be disposed of as radioactive waste. Radioactive
waste can remain radioactive for anywhere from days to hundreds or even thousands
of years. Waste not properly isolated from the public and the generally accessible
environment may contaminate air, soil, and water supplies.

Controlling the Risks of Radioactive Waste
Federal agencies and some states control the  risks associated with radioactive waste
by establishing standards  and  regulations that disposal facilities must meet so the
waste is effectively  isolated. For example, EPA is responsible for setting generally
applicable environmental standards for disposal of radioactive waste.  The federal
government is continually  investigating new technologies and disposal methods to
effectively manage, treat, and dispose of radioactive waste.

         Natural sources of radioactivity are all around, and man-made radioactive materials
         are a vital part of medicine and industry. Exposure to some radiation, natural or man-
         made, is  inevitable. We live with radiation everyday, therefore we must understand
         both its risks and benefits.

Many federal agencies and the states maintain important roles
in protecting the public and the environment from radiation.
The states have agencies responsible for regulating the use of radiation and for
addressing radiation questions and problems. Your respective state agency is the best
first-source of information about radiation issues affecting you. The states regulate
the use of x-ray machines. Some are also responsible for regulating other sources of
radiation within their state on behalf of federal agencies, such as NRC.

U.S.  Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
EPA issues standards and guidance to limit human exposure to radiation. EPA works
with the public, industry,  the states, and other government agencies to inform people
about radiation's risks and promote actions that reduce human exposure. EPA
measures environmental levels of radiation and assesses radiation's effects on people
and the environment.

U.S.  Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)
NRC implements standards for protecting the public from radiation. NRC regulates
the civilian uses of nuclear materials in the United States by: licensing facilities that
possess, use, or dispose of nuclear materials; establishing standards governing the activities of
licensees; and inspecting licensed facilities to ensure compliance with its requirements. These
regulatory functions relate to both nuclear power plants and to other users of nuclear
materials for purposes including nuclear medicine at hospitals, academic activities at
educational institutions, research work, and industrial applications such as gauges and
testing equipment.

U.S.  Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
In the event of a terrorist attack, natural disaster or other large-scale emergency,
the Department of Homeland Security has primary responsibility for ensuring that
emergency response  professionals are prepared. DHS coordinates the comprehensive
federal response to any large-scale crisis and mounts a swift recovery effort.
Additionally, DHS educates citizens to prepare themselves, their families and homes
for major emergencies.

                 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)
                 HHS's Food and Drug Administrations Center for Devices and Radiological
                 Health establishes standards for x-ray machines and other electronic products to
                 ensure that human health is protected through the safe operation of these radiation
                 producing devices.

                 U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)
                 DOE is responsible for the development of the disposal system for spent nuclear
                 fuel from the nations civilian nuclear power plants. This activity is totally funded
                 by a tax paid by the users of nuclear-generated electricity. DOE is also responsible
                 for the management and disposal of nuclear waste and other radioactive materials
                 associated with nuclear weapons production at federally-owned facilities. The
                 Department of Energy is working to clean up its present and former nuclear sites.
                 DOE is cooperating with state governments and private industry to clean up other
                 locations around the United States that were contaminated with radiation as a result
                 of government programs. DOE provides technical advice and assistance to states and
                 the private sector in the management and disposal of low-level radioactive waste.

                 U.S. Department of Defense (DOD)
                 While DOE is responsible for the safe handling of radioactive material at defense
                 production facilities, DOD is responsible for the safe handling and storage of nuclear
                 weapons in its  custody and for other military uses of nuclear energy.

                 U.S. Department of Transportation  (DOT)
                 DOT, in cooperation with NRC and the states, governs the packaging and
                 transport of radioactive materials.  The Department also regulates carriers of
                 radioactive materials.
       OSHA Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
                 OSHA, a division of the U.S. Department of Labor, develops and enforces regulations
                 to protect workers not covered by other agencies from radiation exposure.


For additional radiation information, please
visit our website: www.epa.gov/radiation