Many people today are really worried about radiation, and rightfully so. With Japanese nuclear reactors leaking and headlines being made almost daily about huge plumes of toxic radiation traveling around the world, not to mention radiation now being found in seawater, groundwater, and even in foods, how can you not be at least a little concerned?
Certainly huge doses of radiation can be harmful, as can regular exposure even to lower levels of radiation, too. However, you should avoid the impulse to panic at the first mention of radiation. The fact is that our planet emits its own radiation. The ground, air, and even water are filled with natural sources of radiation. In fact, we, as a product of our environment, even have a little bit of naturally occurring radiation inside of us! (Something to think about the next time you hug your spouse and kids…)
You should first know that the term radiation essentially is a broad term that describes over 1,500 different types of radioactive elements called nuclides. Some are more harmful than others. However, generally speaking, natural sources of radiation include cosmic radiation such as from solar flares, terrestrial radiation including from the naturally occurring element radon (which is a byproduct of uranium but can also be found in hot springs and natural springs), natural foods high in potassium like potatoes and bananas, and more.
So how much natural radiation are you exposed to regularly? That depends on where you live because natural radiation levels fluctuate based on location. It is estimated that the typical American receives exposure to about .01 millisievert of radiation per day from natural sources (not counting man-made sources). However, if you live at a higher elevation where you are exposed to higher levels of cosmic radiation, this figure would need to be revised upward for you – possibly by as much as double.
There are other areas of the world, though, that are known as high radiation hot spots. For instance, a local river near Ramsar, Iran, is known to have over 5,000 times the EPA’s recommendation of radiation for safety levels. A similar story holds in Guarapari, Brazil. Then there is Fountainhead Rock Place in New Mexico, which emits high levels of radiation from volcanic rock.
While you may worry that your exposure to these higher levels of natural radiation, or any natural radiation at all, is harmful to you, you should know that people living in and around the high radiation areas mentioned above do not show any higher incidence of cancer, radiation poisoning, or other such conditions associated with radiation.
Why is this? As mentioned earlier, there are hundreds of types of radioactive particles. Small doses of natural radiation from some kinds of radiation particles actually has positive effects on your health, and in fact works to boost your immune system and prevent cancer, among other benefits.
Now, many radiation particles can have very damaging and even deadly effects on you. More common sources of the “bad” kind of radiation are those from man-made sources like medical x-rays and imaging, nuclear reactors, weapons, and manufacturing processes. So there is reason to be weary of the word “radiation,” but you should also know that some types of radiation are fine and even beneficial to you. So, it’s still OK to live in high altitude areas like Denver, it’s still OK to hug your family members, and it’s still OK to eat bananas and potatoes, too!