Difference Between Ionizing and Non-Ionizing Radiation


Ionizing and Non-Ionizing Radiation
The dividing line between non-ionizing and ionizing radiation is in the ultraviolet portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Ionizing and non-ionizing radiation are the two broad categories of radiation. Ionizing radiation includes subatomic particles and the high energy, short-wavelength portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Non-ionizing radiation include the visible spectrum and the low energy, long-wavelength part of the spectrum beyond visible light. Here is a closer look at the difference between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation and the health risks they pose.

Ionizing Radiation

Ionizing radiation has sufficient energy to ionize atoms. Usually, this means it can remove electrons from atoms, although some types of radiation cause nuclear reactions involving protons and neutrons. The higher-energy part of the ultraviolet region of spectrum is ionizing radiation, while the lower-energy part is non-ionizing radiation. The dividing line is not clear-cut because ionization occurs at different energies for different molecules. Photons or particles with energies greater than 10-33 electron volts (EV) are ionizing.

Types of Ionizing Radiation

Here is a list of the types of ionizing radiation:

  • High-energy ultraviolet light
  • X-rays
  • Gamma rays
  • Alpha particles
  • Beta particles
  • Neutrons
  • High-energy protons
  • Charged atomic nuclei from cosmic rays and the Sun
  • Positrons and other antimatter
  • Background radiation

Ionizing Radiation Health Effects

Ionizing radiation is what most people think of as “radiation.” Because it has enough energy to ionize atoms and break chemical bonds, it can damage or kill cells and change DNA and other molecules. Alpha, gamma, and neutron radiation can induce radioactivity in previously non-radioactive materials and even transmute one element into another. Ionization releases charged particles, so it has electrical effects. Electrical discharge can harm people and other animals and damage equipment.

Non-Ionizing Radiation

By definition, non-ionizing radiation is radiation with insufficient energy to ionize atoms or molecules. However, it does have enough energy for excitation, which raises electrons to higher energy states.

Types of Non-Ionizing Radiation

Here is a list of the types of ionizing radiation:

  • Near-ultraviolet light
  • Visible light
  • Infrared radiation
  • Microwaves
  • Radio waves
  • Very low frequency (VLF) radiation
  • Extremely low frequency (ELF) radiation
  • Thermal radiation
  • Black-body radiation

Non-Ionizing Radiation Health Effects

Heating is the most common effect of non-ionizing radiation. Extreme heating causes tissue damage, but low exposure to non-ionizing radiation typically doesn’t cause a problem. For example, the human body releases harmless thermal energy, while a microwave oven generates enough non-ionizing radiation to cook food. The long-wavelength portion of the spectrum (radio, VLF, ELF) rarely causes heating, but it can cause an accumulation of electric charge on the body. In extreme cases, low-frequency radiation disturbs muscle and nerve responses.

Even though infrared, visible, and ultraviolet light don’t ionize atoms, they still provide enough energy to initiate chemical reactions. Strong light can causes hyperpigmentation of skin, photoaging, and cataracts.

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