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
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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