Ionising Radiation and You – What is Ionising Radiation?

What is Ionising Radiation?

The term radiation is passed around frequently in our day-to-day lives. The definition of radiation is the emission of energy in the form of either a subatomic particle or an electromagnetic wave. This includes things such as light from a light bulb or the low-frequency waves that are used to heat up your food in a microwave. However, if something as trivial as light itself can be considered radiation, then why is it we don’t need to protect ourselves from visible light in the same way we would from high-energy waves, used in the likes of CT scanners, or the radioactive waste of a nuclear power plant? This article will inform you of the differences between ionising and non-ionising radiation, the different types that fall into these categories, and why it is essential to reduce this radiation exposure.

What is Ionisation?

What Is Ionisation

Ionisation (ionization) is the process of removing/adding electrons (a negatively charged subatomic particle) that are bound to particles in order to give that particle a non-zero charge. The process involves the interaction of radiation with the electrons orbiting a nucleus, providing the radiation has sufficient energy to provide/eject an electron to/from it. Radiation such as that from a light bulb (radiation with a frequency between 4 x 1014 Hz to 8 x 1014 Hz) will interact with atoms, but the energy supplied to it is too little to cause an electron to break its chemical bond with this nucleus, break free and therefore undergo ionisation.

This is why we can sit under something such as an LED bulb and not be concerned about any adverse effects (besides blinding); however, things start to look a little different when we start to increase the frequency of the light. Working up the spectrum, we enter the realm of UV light (frequencies of 8 x 1014 Hz up to 3 x 1016 Hz).

UV radiation is known to have substantial consequences on our skin through overexposure to sunlight, tanning beds, etc. Beyond UV light is the frequency range of significant importance to the topic at hand – waves with frequencies above 3 x 1016 Hz are the infamous X-rays, and further up the line, gamma rays.

These waves are utilised in medical applications due to their high energy, and as a result, the ability to penetrate soft tissue and interact with cells within the body via ionisation. These rays are therefore a form of ionising radiation, unlike the aforementioned frequency ranges of the wave spectrum.

Health Effects of Radiation Exposure

Health Effects of Radiation Exposure

When a particle becomes ionised, the charge of the atom is altered to be either positive or negative. This change in electric charge can cause alterations in the targeted area that would not have occurred naturally due to potential bonds being broken and new formations being formed between atoms – this can result in mutations in DNA, killing cells, and in some cases death.

High-energy electromagnetic rays are a fundamental part of our medical system, proving useful in situations such as radiotherapy for cancer treatment, imaging for internal viewing of the body, and countless other applications.

Although the uses of radiation can be in most circumstances lifesaving, it is extremely important that it must also be used with extreme caution due to the potential damages discussed. Of course, this makes protection against radiation exposure essential, ensuring as minimum exposure as physically possible. This may be achieved by keeping the amount of time exposed to the radiation to as little as possible, using the least energetic rays possible to achieve the task at hand, or avoiding being in its presence altogether by using non-ionising alternatives or protecting against it where applicable.

It is, for this reason, Raybloc’s protective products are utilised by the medical sector over the entirety of the United Kingdom; providing hospitals, dental practices, veterinaries, research centres, etc, with top-of-the-line products, ensuring that those who work in environments involving radiation can do so with the 100% confidence that they are safe behind our equipment to radiation protection advising standards.

What are the 5 Types of Ionising Radiation?

1. Alpha particles

Alpha particles

Alpha radiation is the release of a positively charged particle consisting of two protons and two neutrons. Alpha nuclei have a relatively high velocity, though their range is very limited. This means that although they are extremely ionising, they pose little concern unless ingested since they are unable to travel long distances in comparison to other types in this list. These particles are even used in fire alarms in residencies to detect the presence of gas given their ability to alter particles in short proximity.

2. Beta particles

Beta radiation is the release of electrons from an atom through a process known as beta decay. Per each release, an electron is emitted from the atom at high speed. This particle is much lighter than the alpha counterpart, resulting in this high velocity and also a much further travel distance than alpha particles before the energy is dissipated. These particles have relatively low ionizing ability and are often used in industrial applications such as measuring the thickness of paper in paper mills.

3. Positrons

Positrons are subatomic particles with the same mass (and thus energy) as an electron, but with a positive charge. Positrons can be produced through various methods, but radioactive decay is the most common in medical applications. Positrons excite most as they are an example of anti-matter and will therefore annihilate standard matter. This means that they will not travel far before dissipating, and are therefore used in medication to
destroy harmful cells within a patient.

4. X-rays

X-ray radiation originates from both natural sources (cosmic rays) and man-made, artificial sources, such as in medical applications. It has a wavelength range of 1nm or less and consists of photons that have been ejected by the de-excitation of electrons from a higher state. This is the most common form of ionizing radiation and is commonly associated with imaging. The relatively high energy of this radiation means it will pass through soft tissue but will be attenuated by hard tissue such as bone, making skeletal imaging a sci-fi reality.

5. Gamma Radiation

Gamma rays are essentially the same as X-rays, but with higher energy (smaller wavelength). Given this higher energy, these rays are even more ionizing than the aforementioned and can therefore destroy cells more effectively in applications where this is necessary. This is why you won’t be going into any ‘Gamma rooms’ to get a picture of your bones!

Exposure to Ionizing Radiation

Although medical exposure to ionizing radiation is often necessary for imaging and treatment, the health risks associated with it are important to acknowledge as we have already discussed. It is our job at Raybloc to ensure that radiation is used only where it is needed by preventing it from reaching anyone other than the patient. The radiation dose to that patient is then calculated by the relevant professionals to ensure that they are exposed to radiation sources within a regulated amount.

What is the Most Ionizing Radiation?

Out of the five different types of ionizing radiation, alpha radiation is the most ionizing form of radiation. However, the distance these particles are able to travel through air is no further than an inch (2.5cm).

What is Medical Radiation Used For?

Medical radiation is used for many things such as radiography, tomography and nuclear medicine. These applications use a variety of different types of radiation we discussed earlier in the article to achieve different results, whether it be imaging, diagnosis, or treatment.

New Radiation Regulations

Regulations on ionizing radiation may alter from year to year as technology and research make new developments and improvements. This may include the strength of the radiation source and the amount of time the radiation is administered. To make sure these regulations are maintained, Raybloc works closely with radiation protection advisors to ensure our products are built to the newest standards.


With your new-found knowledge, the next time somebody tells you that 5G will be the death of the human race, kindly inform them of the science behind radiation. If they’re still concerned, be sure to send them to Raybloc X-ray Protection for the finest quality in lead-lined shielding.


How is ionizing radiation contained?

To attenuate ionizing radiation, dense material can be used that stops the radiation in its path. Cost-efficient methods include concrete where space isn’t a concern and sheets of lead metal. Lead has a high density, even for metal, which means that only a relatively thin amount is needed to shield it from radioactivity.

What are the effects of ionizing radiation on the human body?

Ionizing radiation can break chemical bonds in molecular compounds. When these bonds break, new bonds will form which will alter the chemistry of the compound. When this happens on living cells, DNA can be altered causing mutations which can lead to the formation of cancerous tumours. Similarly, these alterations can kill cells, cancer cells included. This is the basis of radiotherapy, where radiation is applied to the patient on a concentrated spot to remove the tumour.

What is ionizing radiation made of?

Ionizing radiation comes in various forms, whether that be high-energy waves on the electromagnetic spectrum, or high-energy subatomic particles emitted from radioactive particles or stimulated release.

Need help and advice? Download our eBook for a comprehensive guide.

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