The environment is contaminated in numerous ways. Plastic on the land, sewage in the water, carbon in the air. But not every substance is radioactive and not every pollution is radioactive pollution. There is a category of atoms that try to become a stable isotope from its unstable state. This process involves emission of radioactivity. When these atoms are present in the environment, then you can simply claim the environment to be radioactively polluted.
Well, you can see the dirty river, can smell the garbage. Radioactivity cannot be felt. This is the reason that there are many safe places, may be your home, that needs to be checked for the radioactive pollution.
Below is some more information related to radioactive pollution, which you must know.
What is Radioactive Pollution?
Radioactive Substances and nuclear radiations (i.e., alpha, beta & gamma-particles) produced during nuclear reactions, affect our environment adversely and thus radioactive pollution is created.
What are the Sources of Radioactive Pollution?
Low level radioactive liquid wastes, radioactive gaseous wastes & dusts are released during nuclear explosions and are the key sources of radioactive pollution.
The Major Causes & Events that produce Radioactive Pollution
Radioactive waste and sources
Basically, high level, low level and transuranic are the three categories of radioactive wastes. The high-level waste emits lower levels of radiations for a very long time. But initially the emission measured is claimed to be intense. They mainly comprise of the disposal from nuclear weapons.
Low-level wastes are high volume wastes and keep emitting ionizing radiations for a longer time. The cleaning materials from nuclear plants and other radioisotopes from hospitals and laboratories are main examples.
Transuranic elements can be found in both of the wastes, especially from military installations. These are also emitted from plutonium processing.
Nuclear weapons’ testing
Right after the start of the atomic age i.e. since 1945, the nuclear weapon testing came into significance. Since then, the weapon bursting has been carried out on the Earth’s surface, under the Earth’s surface, in the atmosphere and hundreds of meters under the water.
Though the isotopes of Iodine (129 and 131), stocks of plutonium and cesium decay fast, they are dumped underground. But, strontium-90 has always been a biggest cause of many health hazards. According to a report to the UN General Assembly in 2000, nuclear testing is the main reason for human exposure to radioactivity which is caused by man.
World War II
After several years from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb combat, researchers from Brazil examined a victim’s jaw. There was an absorption of 9.46 grays of radiation where half of this amount can easily kill a human.
Apart from the human life and ecosystem damages during the war, the radioactive particles and energy so generated got consumed by land, air and water. This happed over a range of several miles.
A couple of years later, the leukemia cases fired up for four to six years. Later, the number of tumor cases increased rapidly since 1956. Though the cities have recovered from the damage and they are not radioactive anymore.
Chernobyl nuclear accident
Due to the rupture in the nuclear reactor a large amount of radioactive substances was released for over ten days. People in the nearby cities were evacuated. But the radioactive substances got deposited and later contaminated the sewage. The agriculture was ruined due to the contamination due to iodine and hence affecting the dairy farming. Even for decades the food crops and milk will remain contaminated with the cesium-137 due to the disaster.
Fukushima nuclear accident
Due to the natural earthquakes and tsunamis in 2011, an accident occurred in Fukushima’s nuclear reactor. Through the air, amounts of radioactive iodine, strontium and cesium got deposited on the ground and in the water.
The land life will get deteriorated because of the Cesium-137 isotope. It won’t decay half the way before thirty years since then. This affected and will affect the stocks, agriculture and people’s health for an unforeseeable future.
Apart from the human activities, some radioactivity is generated naturally. The sources are gases and minerals that are present in the land. Though they cannot escape, unless there is mining or extraction done. Another example of natural radioactive contaminant is radon gas.
A naturally occurring gas, radon disperses in the environment rapidly and does not affect anyone. But if it enters in the building, it gets trapped. It is odorless, colorless and inert. Where smoking is the biggest cause of lung cancer in USA, radon follows it. Thousands die every year due to the lung cancer due to radon. Getting your homes, offices, schools tested and treated is suggested by the authorities.
Cosmic radiation is one more cause of radioactive pollution, entering the earth’s atmosphere from space. Carbon-14 present inside the human body is generated due to these cosmic rays.
Effects of Radioactive Pollution
- The radioactive gaseous wastes are injected into the upper layer of atmosphere where, due to cooling they condense to fine-dust particles and thus Radioactive Cloud is formed. This cloud moves in the direction of the wind, settles down slowly to the surface of the earth & thus pollutes air, water & soil.
- The radioactive substances produce energy which is so strong that the living cells are damaged or destroyed.
- People working with radioactive elements develop tumors.
- Radioactive elements like strontium-90 affects our soil & through this human beings and animals are also affected adversely.
- Nuclear explosions which are operated in sea, make sea water polluted. This affects aquatic life.
- Among the radioactive radiations gamma-rays are the most dangerous, since they have high energy and high penetrating power. These radiations can, therefore, pass freely into the human body, where they lose energy, which destroys the living cells by converting them into charged particles i.e. ions. These ions are chemically very reactive & hence disrupt cell membranes, reduce the effectiveness of enzymes and even damage genes and chromosomes. All these results in diseases like Leukemia & Cancer.
- The radiation leaked from reactors damage the health of human beings and animals.
Health Hazards to Humans
Acute Radiation Syndrome
Acute radiation syndrome very rare disease that is due to the high-level radioactive exposure. The effects are nausea and the person may vomit, everything within hours. Sometimes, it simply leads to death in a few days or weeks. But nothing to be worried about unless you know you were not at the nuclear explosion or rupture’s sites. Other low-level issues are bulleted next.
Issues based on the age factor
The fact here is that the factor of age matters with the exposure being constant. Talking about the sensitivity to the radiation is high during the growing age then decreases and after adulthood it starts increasing with age. So, the risk for cancer increases if a child is exposed to certain radiation. It is better if the people over forty or in or less than 20 seconds take good care in staying away.
Radiation and Mutation
The radionuclides that are harmful “ionize” (a scientific word that means it removes an electron from the orbit), which disrupts the DNA of the cells in the human body. Now, the thing is, the cell won’t die but will not work as proposed.
One of the effects of the DNA disruption of the germ cell (for reproduction purposes) is mutation that is the genetic effect due to radiation. Of course, mutation won’t end up having a superficially energetic offspring, but a high risk of hereditary cancer will be there. These effects may be visible until some of the generations.
Radiation and cancer
When the ionization disrupts the blueprint of the DNA of the non-germ cell (responsible for cell growth and division), then the cell starts to divide in an uncontrollable manner. It is too slow, though, for someone to even notice, as it is way different than the cancer caused by other than radiation.
Other than this, it is still an ongoing research’s part to determine that at what age the cancer will show up in a human body after the exposure, and which type. Since, different parts of the body have different sensitivity to the radionuclides.
Effects on the Nature
Effects on wildlife
The different levels in the animal system suffer differently. The higher-level organisms get more affected than insects and flies. Herbivores, especially cattle, graze the contaminated land. That’s how the deposition of Ce-13 and I-131 gets accumulated on the animal tissues in a tragically large amount. These radionuclides enter their metabolic cycles and affect their DNAs (mentioned above; ionizing). This ends up having a mutated animal generation with a higher risk to health issues by just a small amount of radionuclides.
Effects on Vegetation
Effects of radiation on the protectors of nature are worse too. The damage is mostly done due to the increase Ultraviolet waves (the short lengthened) and is directly proportional to the amount of exposure the plant gets. Different parts get effected differently. The stomata stop to stop the evaporation during the increase of radiation. When the chromosomes are hit the reproduction is disturbed, resulting plants in altered shapes, size and health. And, exposure in high amounts simply means deletion of the effected plants.
And what we eat are these plants, and what we ingest are nuclides.
Effects on Sea life
The great sources of nuclear energy and chemical processing i.e. the power plants have been releasing radioisotopes into the water since decades. Few are of cesium, radon, crypton, ruthenium, zinc and copper. Though the waste is released in a “permissible” amount but permissible does not means safe. These radionuclides can be detected in the soft tissues or on the bones of the fishes.
In fact, the sea-weed used in bread preparation was said to have radioisotope of ruthenium. The shells of all our shelled delicacies and the tissues of our favorite fishes are contaminated with radionuclides. Guess, who is dying with the sea food? Are we?
Control Measures For Minimizing Radioactive Pollution
The waste materials produced in the mining, enrichment and fission of U-235 inside the reactor are collectively called Nuclear Wastes. At present most of the nuclear waste is being stored in strong leak proof containers. These will be disposed off whenever a safe method of their disposal is found out in future.
Also read: Coronavirus
The Protective Measures Against Contamination
The decaying period of the high level wastes varies such as the products of fission. It can range from several minutes to few hours. Isotopes of Strontium and Cesium have a slow rate of decaying and take up to thirty years for half-life decay. Whereas, Plutonium-239 takes more time up to 24,000 years for the half-life decay. Now, if a hazardous waste isn’t being processed naturally, can you calculate the harms?
Radioactive material is needed to be removed from one’s body. This will prevent the radioactive substance from spreading from one to another. You can externally remove the contaminants from your clothing, skin and hair. Self-contamination requires a lot of soap and warm water. Take a proper bath if you feel contaminated.
If by any chance a human inhales or swallows contaminants, it should be removed internally. Special medical treatment under supervision is given in such a situation.
The precautions at personal level
If your house is located near a nuclear power plant, then you might need to think about the possibility of contamination. The level of radon gas in your building is recommended to be checked. The radon level should be removed. For those who work with the radioactive material are at great risk. They require protective measures to stay away from radioactive contamination.
The methods at global level
The government of all the nations has set a permissible level to the concentration of contaminants that are released in the environment. Apart from that, scientists suggest dumping the waste in the space (only if it is done super carefully).
The best way is to start using the renewable sources of energy. Giving up on nuclear energy will be a huge step to minimize the radioactive pollution.
These are some of the basic facts that should be enough for us to understand how radioactive contamination went wrong. The humans are still trying to fight with the natural radionuclides. Whereas the man-made causes still top the charts. It is time to be aware and preventive to this lesser known contamination. Agreed, this process is significantly slower, but they say, and I quote, “slow and steady wins the race.” Isn’t the destruction due to some of our mean mistakes, enough gradual to succeed in destroying our environment?