Contents Institute for Water Quality Studies



Radioactivity and Protection against Ionising Radiation


3.    Radioactivity and ionising radiation [2]


3.1.        Radiation in everyday life


Radioactivity is a part of our earth and has existed since the beginning of time. Naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) occurs everywhere and is present in the earth’s crust, the floors and walls of our homes, schools, or offices and in the food we eat and drink. There are radioactive gases in the air we breathe. Our own bodies (muscles, bones, and tissue) contain naturally occurring radioactive elements. Man has always been exposed to natural radiation arising from the earth as well as from outside the earth. The radiation we receive from outer space is called cosmic radiation or cosmic rays.


We also receive exposure from man-made radiation, such as X-rays, radiation used to diagnose diseases and for cancer therapy.  Fallout from nuclear explosives testing, and small quantities of radioactive materials released to the environment from coal and nuclear power plants, are also sources of radiation exposure to man.


Radioactivity is the term used to describe the disintegration of atoms. The atom can be characterised by the number of protons in its nucleus. Some natural elements are unstable. Therefore, their nuclei disintegrate or decay, thus releasing energy in the form of radiation. This physical phenomenon is called radioactivity and the radioactive atoms are called radionuclides, or nuclides for short in this document.  A unit of weight such as the gram is not useful to express radioactivity since 15 picograms of thorium-234, for example, is approximately equivalent in radioactivity to 1 gram of uranium-238.  Radioactive decay is expressed in units called becquerels (Bq).  One Bq equals one disintegration per second.  Examples of radioactivity that can occur in some natural and artificial materials [3] are as follows:


Table 3.1:  Examples of Radioactivity


Example of material


Type of activity

1 kg of granite

1000 Bq


1 kg of coffee

1000 Bq


1 kg of coal ash

2000 Bq


1 kg superphosphate fertiliser

5000 Bq


1 adult human

7000 Bq


1 household smoke detector

30 000 Bq


1 kg low level radioactive waste

1 000 000 Bq


Radioisotope source for medical therapy (Typically Cobalt-60)

100 000 000 000 000 Bq



The nuclides decay at a characteristic rate that remains constant regardless of external influences, such as temperature or pressure. The time that it takes for half the nuclides to disintegrate or decay is called half-life. This differs for each nuclide, ranging from fractions of a second to billions of years. For example, the half-life of Iodine-131 is eight days, but for Uranium-238, which is present in varying amounts all over the world, it is 4.5 billion years. Potassium-40, the main source of radioactivity in our bodies, has a half-life of 1.42 billion years.


3.2.        Types of radiation


The term "radiation" is very broad, and includes such things as light and radio waves. In our context it refers to "ionising" radiation, which means that because such radiation passes through matter, it can cause it to become electrically charged or ionised. In living tissues, the electrical ions produced by radiation can affect normal biological processes.  There are various types of radiation, each having different characteristics.  The common ionising radiations generally talked about are and that can be associated with water with elevated radioactivity levels, are:


·        Alpha radiation:  This consists of heavy, positively charged particles emitted by large atoms of elements such as uranium and radium. Alpha radiation can be stopped completely by a sheet of paper or by the thin surface layer of our skin (epidermis). However, if alpha-emitting materials are taken into the body by breathing, eating, or drinking, they can expose internal tissues directly and may, therefore, cause biological damage.


·        Beta radiation:  This consists of electrons. They are more penetrating than alpha particles and can pass through up to around 1 centimetre of water. In general, a sheet of aluminium a few millimetres thick will stop beta radiation.


·        Gamma rays:  This is electromagnetic radiation similar to X-rays, light, and radio waves.  Gamma rays, depending on their energy, can pass right through the human body, but can be stopped by thick walls of concrete or lead.


·        Neutrons:  These are uncharged particles and do not produce ionisation directly.  But, their interaction with the atoms of matter can give rise to alpha, beta, gamma, or X-rays that then produce ionisation.


3.3.        Radiation dose


 Sunlight feels warm because our body absorbs the infrared rays it contains. But, infrared rays do not produce ionisation in body tissue. In contrast, ionising radiation can impair the normal functioning of the cells or even kill them. The amount of energy necessary to cause significant biological effects through ionisation is so small that our bodies cannot feel this energy as in the case of infrared rays, which produce heat.


The biological effects of ionising radiation vary with the type and energy. A measure of the risk of biological harm is the dose of radiation that the tissues receive. The unit of absorbed radiation dose is the sievert (Sv). Since one sievert is a large quantity, radiation doses normally encountered are expressed in millisievert (mSv) or microsievert (µSv), which are one-thousandth and one-millionth of a sievert respectively. For example, one chest X-ray will give about 0.2 mSv of radiation dose. On average, our radiation exposure due to all natural background sources amounts to about 2.4 mSv a year, though this figure can vary, depending on the geographical location, by several hundred percent.


In homes and buildings, there are radioactive elements in the air. These radioactive elements are radon (Radon-222), thoron (Radon-220) and by-products formed by the decay of radium (Radium 226) and thorium present in many sorts of rocks, other building materials and in the soil.  By far the largest source of natural radiation exposure comes from varying amounts of uranium and thorium in the soil around the world. The radiation exposure due to cosmic rays is very dependent on altitude, and slightly on latitude.  People who travel by air, thereby, increase their exposure to radiation. 


3.4.        Radiation protection


It has long been recognised that large doses of ionising radiation can damage human tissues. Over the years, as more was learned about radiation, scientists became increasingly concerned about the potentially damaging effects of exposure to large doses of radiation. The need to regulate exposure to radiation prompted the formation of a number of expert bodies to consider what was needed to be done. In 1928, an independent non-governmental body of experts in the field, the International X-ray and Radium Protection Committee was established.  It later was renamed the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP).  Its purpose is to establish basic principles for, and issue recommendations on, radiation protection. These principles and recommendations form the basis for national regulations governing the exposure of radiation workers and members of the public. They also have been incorporated by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) into its Basic Safety Standards for Radiation Protection published jointly with the World Health Organisation (WHO), International Labour Organisation (ILO), and the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA).  These standards are used worldwide to ensure safety and radiation protection of radiation workers and the general public.  It also forms the basis of the regulations in South Africa as applied by the National Nuclear Regulator to practices and working activities.


An intergovernmental body was formed in 1955 by the General Assembly of the United Nations as the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR). UNSCEAR is directed to assemble, study and disseminate information on observed levels of ionising radiation and radioactivity (natural and man-made) in the environment, and on the effects of such radiation on man and the environment.


Basic approaches to radiation protection are consistent all over the world. The ICRP recommends that any exposure above the natural background radiation should be kept as low as reasonably achievable, but below the individual dose limits. The individual dose limit for radiation workers averaged over 5 years is 100 mSv not exceeding 50 mSv in any one year, and for members of the general public it is 1 mSv per year. These dose limits have been established based on a prudent approach by assuming that there is no threshold dose below which there would be no effect. It means that any additional dose will cause a proportional increase in the chance of a health effect. This relationship has not yet been established in the low dose range where the dose limits have been set.  Use of this relationship corresponds to a precautionary approach.


There are many high natural background radiation areas around the world where the annual radiation dose received by members of the general public is even higher than the ICRP dose limit for radiation workers. The numbers of people exposed are too small to expect detectable increases in health effects epidemiologically. Still the fact that there is no evidence so far of any increase does not mean the risk is being totally disregarded. The ICRP and the IAEA recommend the individual dose must be kept as low as reasonably achievable, and consideration must be given to the presence of other sources that may cause simultaneous radiation exposure to the same group of the public.  Also, allowance for future sources or practices just be kept in mind so that the total dose received by an individual member of the public does not exceed the dose limit.



3.5.        At what level is radiation harmful?


The effects of radiation at high doses and dose rates are reasonably well documented.  A very large dose delivered to the whole body over a short time will result in the death of the exposed person within days.  Much has been learned by studying the health records of the survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  We know from these that some of the health effects of exposure to radiation do not appear unless a certain quite large dose is absorbed.  However, many other effects, especially cancers are readily detectable and occur more often in those with moderate doses.  At lower doses and dose rates, there is a degree of recovery in cells and in tissues.  However, at low doses of radiation, there is still considerable uncertainty about the overall effects. It is presumed that exposure to radiation, even at the levels of natural background, may involve some additional risk of cancer.  However, this has yet to be established.  To determine precisely the risk at low doses by epidemiology would mean observing millions of people at higher and lower dose levels.  Such an analysis would be complicated by the absence of a control group that had not been exposed to any radiation. In addition, there are thousands of substances in our everyday life besides radiation that can also cause cancer, including tobacco smoke, ultraviolet light, asbestos, some chemical dyes, fungal toxins in food, viruses, and even heat.  Only in exceptional cases is it possible to identify conclusively the cause of a particular cancer.  There is also experimental evidence from animal studies that exposure to radiation can cause genetic effects.   However, the studies of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki give no indication of this for humans.   Again, if there were any hereditary effects of exposure to low-level radiation, they could be detected only by careful analysis of a large volume of statistical data. Moreover, they would have to be distinguished from those of a number of other agents which might also cause genetic disorders, but whose effect may not be recognised until the damage has been done (thalidomide, once prescribed for pregnant women as a tranquilliser, is one example). It is likely that the resolution of the scientific debate will not come via epidemiology but from an understanding of the mechanisms through molecular biology.  With all the knowledge so far collected on effects of radiation, there is still no definite conclusion as to whether exposure due to natural background carries a health risk, even though it has been demonstrated for exposure at a level several times higher.


The following gives an indication of the possible effects and implications of a range of radiation doses and dose rates to the whole body, as well as examples of low levels of chronic (or chronic) exposure situations:


Table 3.2: Description and Effects of Different Doses and Dose Rates



Description / Effects

0.3 to 0.6 mSv/a

This is the typical range of dose rates from artificial sources of radiation, mostly medical.

0.2 to 0.8 mSv/a

This is the range of worldwide average annual radiation dose from ingestion of foodstuff and water.  Variations about the mean values by factors 5 to 10 are not unusual for many components of exposure from natural sources.

2.4 mSv/a (approximately)

The normal average background radiation from natural sources.  Approximately half of this exposure is from radon in air.

13 mSv/a

This is the highest known average annual dose from background radiation that occurs in the Kerala and Madras states in India where a population of over 100 000 people is exposed to this level.

20 mSv/a

This dose averaged over 5 years is the limit for regulated practices and working activities such as the nuclear industry employees and mining and mineral processing workers, who are closely monitored.

50 mSv/a

This dose is conservatively the lowest dose rate where there is any evidence of cancer being caused.  It is also the dose rate that arises from natural background levels in several places. Above this, the probability of cancer occurrence (rather than the severity) increases with dose.

1000 mSv

This dose accumulated over some time, would probably cause a fatal cancer many years later in 5 of every 100 persons exposed to it (i.e. if the normal incidence of fatal cancer were 25%, this dose would increase it to 30%).

1 000 mSv

This dose received as a short-term dose would probably cause (temporary) illness such as nausea and decreased white blood cell count, but not death.  Above this dose the severity of illness increases with dose.

Between 2 000 and 10 000 mSv

This dose over a short-term dose would cause severe radiation sickness with increasing likelihood that this would be fatal.

10 000 mSv

 This dose in a short-term dose would cause immediate illness and subsequent death within a few weeks.


3.6.        Risks and benefits


We all face risks in everyday life. It is impossible to eliminate them all, but it is possible to reduce them. The use of coal, oil, and nuclear energy for electricity production, for example, is associated with some level of risk to health, however small. In general, society accepts the associated risk in order to derive the relevant benefits.  Any individual exposed to carcinogenic pollutants will carry some risk of getting cancer.  The use of radiation and nuclear techniques in medicine, industry, agriculture, energy and other scientific and technological fields has brought significant benefits to society.  The benefits include medicine for diagnosis and treatment of certain kinds of cancer.


Strenuous attempts are made in the nuclear industry to reduce risks to as low as reasonably achievable.  The scientific field of radiation protection sets examples for other safety disciplines in two unique respects:


·        Firstly, there is the assumption that any increased level of radiation above natural background will carry some risk of harm to health.

·        Secondly, it aims to protect future generations from activities conducted today. 



3.7.        Artificial radioactivity


A brief discussion is included at this point on artificial radioactivity originating at nuclear facilities such as nuclear power stations, for example.   There are very few nuclear facilities in South Africa when compared to other countries such as in Europe.  Potentially significant impacts from these facilities usually only occur during abnormal operating or accident conditions. 


Monitoring of the potential impact on water from practices such as nuclear power stations, is normally covered by extensive monitoring programmes implemented by the practice and the NNR, as is prescribed by the operating licence conditions issued in terms of the National Nuclear Regulator Act (Act No. 47 of 1999).  These programmes include monitoring procedures for specific nuclides typical of the nuclear fission process.  The nuclides are mostly short-lived beta particle emitters compared to typical NORM nuclides that also include alpha particle emitters.  Annual Allowable Discharge Quantities (AADQ’s) are established for each nuclear facility.  The AADQ’s are related to the nuclide spectrum of routine releases from the facility and the annual dose constraint for the facility (typically 250 mSv/a).






Institute for Water Quality Studies Department of Water Affairs & Forestry