The excess energy contained in the atom is released in one of a few basic particles and energetic waves. The Greek alphabet is used to name the particles (in the order of their discovery). The alpha particle is the heaviest. It is produced when the heaviest elements decay such as plutonium or uranium. The alpha particle contains two neutrons and two protons and leaves the nucleus at around a tenth the speed of light. Its energy is transferred within a short distance to the surrounding media. However, its short flight knocks about 450,000 electrons out of the surrounding atoms. The alpha particle emitter will not penetrate the outer layer of our skin, but is dangerous if inhaled or swallowed. The delicate internal workings of the living cell forming the lining of the lungs or internal organs, most certainly will be changed (mutated) or killed outright by the energetic alpha particle. The number of lung cancer cases among uranium miners from inhaled and ingested alpha sources is much higher than those of the public at large. Radon, the gas produced by the decay of radium-226, also emits alpha particles, which poses a hazard to lungs and airways when inhaled. Homes built in areas with high ground radioactivity should be tested for radon buildup in enclosed basement spaces.


The beta particle is an energetic electron given off by the nucleus of unstable isotopes to restore an energy balance. The Rad*Scanner can detect most energetic beta particles through the case. Weaker beta particles can be detected through the tube window. Although the beta particle is around 8000 times smaller than the alpha particle, it is capable of penetrating much deeper into living matter. Each encounter with a living cell, and there may be many before the beta energy is dissipated, is likely to dam age some of the chemical links between the living molecules of the cell or cause some permanent genetic change in the cell nucleus. If the damage occurs within the generative cells of the ovaries or testes, the damage may be passed to new generations. The normal background radiation level must contribute to the mutation of the gene pool. Most mutations are undesirable with a very few leading to "improvements". Any increase in the background level of radiation should be considered harmful.


The next "particle" is the very high energy "X-ray" called the gamma ray. It is an energetic photon or light wave in the same electromagnetic family as light and x-rays, but is much more energetic and harmful. It is capable of damaging living cells as it slows down by transferring its energy to surrounding cell components. The Rad*Scanner digital geiger counter detects energetic gamma rays through the case walls. Gamma ray sources are used to find flaws in pipes and vessels and to check the integrity of welds in steel.

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