Newspaper: The Patriot
Date: March 29, 1979
Title: Radiation’s Two Sides: Boon, Bane
Author: The Associated Press

Radiation can be as familiar as the sun’s rays or as frightening as the mushroom cloud of a nuclear bomb.

It is a simple concept with complex effects- effects which even today are not fully understood.

The problems of weighing the benefits of radiation against its potential for danger were highlighted Wednesday when a small amount of radioactive steam escaped from a nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, PA.

Radiation is defined as energy moving through space as invisible waves. The frequency of the waves determines the characteristics of the radiation and their effect on the human body.

THERE ARE two types of radiation: ionizing and non-ionizing. Ionizing radiation- the kind involved in Wednesday’s accident- creates electrically charged ions which can disrupt body processes, including life. Nuclear weapons produce ionizing radiation: so do X-rays and some television sets.

Non-ionizing radiation- produced by microwaves, light and sound- lacks the ability to create ions. It can, however, disrupt body processes. Too much of it generally causes sickness rather than death, but exposure to massive doses can be fatal.

All persons are exposed to radiation every day; most of it is low-level radiation that poses a minor but continual risk.

The Food and Drug Administration says: “We do not know definitely whether there is an amount of radiation below which injurious effects will not occur.”

Radiation emissions are measured in roentgens or milliroentgens. (there are 1,000 milliroentgens in a roentgen.) A dental X-ray emits about 200 milliroentgens; by law, TV sets may not emit more than half a milliroentgen an hour.

BUT WHEN scientists talk about danger, they talk about rems- or millirems- which refer to the amount of radiation energy absorbed by the body. The average American gets about 100 to 120 millirems a year from background radiation- most of it coming from diagnostic X-rays. The amount of radiation absorbed by the body from a dental X-ray, for example, is generally around 10 to 20 millirems.

Bill Dornsife, a nuclear engineer with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources, said the amount of radiation involved in the escape of radioactive steam at the Three Mile Island plant on Wednesday was equivalent to one millirem per hour.

How dangerous is the radiation of modern life?

“You have to put (the danger) in perspective as to what society really wants,” says Dr. Solomon Michaelson of the University of Rochester Medical Center. “We’re always surrounded by radiant energy. Heat and light are examples. They can be very beneficial.”

Allan McGowan of the Scientists Institute for Public Information says the key factor making radiation dangerous is its ability to penetrate the body. Radiation from infrared and ultraviolet rays of the sun can be particularly dangerous because you absorb it in the surface layer of the skin. “Any increase in exposure to radiation increases the chance that something will happen,” he says.