Background Radiation: A Critical Look at Its Cosmic and Natural Form

Background radiation is a natural and ever-present phenomenon in our environment, emanating from various natural and artificial sources. Understanding what background radiation is and how it affects us is crucial in today’s world, where the use of radiation in various fields, from medical to industrial, is increasingly prevalent.

What is Background Radiation?

Background radiation refers to the ionizing radiation present in the environment that originates from various natural and artificial sources. This radiation is a mixture of cosmic rays, terrestrial sources such as radon gas, and internal radiation from radioactive elements within the human body. Natural background radiation is a constant feature of our environment, and it varies depending on geographical location, altitude, and other factors.

What is The Variation in Background Radiation?

The level of background radiation varies significantly across different geographical locations. Factors such as altitude, latitude, and the presence of naturally occurring radioactive materials like uranium and thorium in the soil can influence these variations. For instance, higher altitudes receive more cosmic radiation, while areas with large deposits of uranium and thorium will have higher terrestrial radiation levels.

Sources of Background Radiation

Natural Background Radiation Sources

  • Cosmic Radiation

Cosmic radiation, primarily composed of high-energy particles from outer space, contributes to background radiation. The intensity of cosmic rays is influenced by altitude and latitude, with higher levels experienced at higher altitudes and poles due to the Earth’s magnetic field.

  • Terrestrial Radiation

Terrestrial radiation arises from radioactive materials present in the earth’s crust, including elements like uranium, thorium, and potassium-40. This radiation varies in concentration depending on the geographical area and the composition of the soil and rocks.

  • Internal Radiation from Radon and Other Radioactive Elements

Radon gas, a naturally occurring radioactive gas, is a significant source of internal radiation exposure. It is produced by the decay of uranium and thorium in the soil and can accumulate in buildings, particularly in basements and lower floors.

Artificial Background Radiation Sources

  • Medical Procedures (e.g., X-rays, CT scans)

Medical procedures such as X-rays and CT scans contribute to artificial background radiation. While these procedures are essential for diagnosis and treatment, they expose patients to additional ionizing radiation.

Nuclear Power Production

  • Nuclear Power Production

Nuclear power plants produce a small amount of background radiation as part of their operation. However, modern safety standards and regulations minimise the release of radioactive materials into the environment.

  • Fallout from Nuclear Testing

Nuclear weapons testing, especially conducted in the mid-20th century, has contributed to artificial background radiation globally, although its impact has diminished over time due to radioactive decay and dispersion.

The Background Radiation and Difference From Other Types of Radiation

Background radiation primarily consists of gamma rays, neutrons, and particles such as electrons and protons. This differs from other types of radiation like infrared, which is non-ionizing and generally not part of the background radiation spectrum.

Human’s Exposure To Ionising Radiation

Humans are continuously exposed to small amounts of ionising radiation from both natural and artificial sources. The average dose a person receives varies based on factors like location and lifestyle but is typically a few millisieverts (mSv) per year.

Health Effects of Background Radiation and X-rays

The health effects of background radiation and X-rays are typically minimal due to the low radiation doses involved. However, long-term or high-level exposure can increase the risk of cancer and other health issues.

Can You Protect Yourself From Background Radiation?

Complete protection from background radiation is not feasible due to its ubiquitous nature. However, minimizing exposure to higher levels of radiation, like avoiding unnecessary medical scans and mitigating radon levels in homes, can reduce risks.


What is the biggest contributor to background radiation?

The biggest contributor to background radiation for most people is radon gas, a naturally occurring radioactive gas that can accumulate in buildings.

How is background radiation measured?

Background radiation is measured using various instruments like Geiger counters, which can detect and quantify radiation levels in terms of millisieverts (mSv) or microsieverts (μSv).

How much mSv is background radiation?

The average background radiation dose a person receives is about 2-3 mSv per year, but this can vary based on geographic location and other factors.

What type of radiation is a neutron?

Neutrons are a type of ionizing radiation that is part of the natural background radiation, primarily from cosmic sources and certain terrestrial elements. They are uncharged particles found in the nucleus of an atom, and are therefore present in alpha particles.

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