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Radiation - uses and dangers

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Treating Cancer

Because Gamma rays have the ability to kill any living cell, they are used to kill cancer cells. This is called radiotherapy. It works because cancer cells cannot repair themselves when damaged by gamma rays, whereas healthy cells can.image01.png

It's vital to get the dose correct, as if there is too much you will damage more healthy cells. However, too little and you won’t kill the cancer.

Some types of cancer are easier to treat with radiotherapy than others. It's not very difficult to aim the gamma rays at a breast tumour, although with lung cancer it is harder to avoid damaging many healthy cells. Also, lungs can be more easily damaged by gamma rays, therefore different treatments would be advised.


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Animals and plants have a known proportion of Carbon-14 (a radioisotope of Carbon) in their tissues.

When they die they stop taking Carbon in, then the amount of Carbon-14 goes down at a known rate
(Carbon-14 has a half-life of 5700 years).

The age of the ancient organic materials can be found by measuring the amount of Carbon-14 that is left.

Smoke detector

Smoke alarms contain a mild source of Americium-241.
Alpha particles are emitted from here, these ionise the air. This means that the air conducts electricity and a small current will flow.

If any smoke enters the alarm, this absorbs the alpha particles, the current becomes reduced, and the alarm triggers.

Americium-241 has a half-life of 460 years, making it ideal for a long lasting smoke detector.


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Alpha particles posses the ability to alter the DNA of a cell. This can make cells do unexpected things, such as multiplying vigorously as cancer does.



Beta particles have better range than alpha and is absorbed by 3 millimetres of aluminium.  Because they have a greater penetration power they can get through your skin and possible effect you cells inside. Even though they have a better range they have less ionisation power.



Gamma rays have extreme penetration power, this is due to the fact that it is a wave of energy. It is included in the electromagnetic spectrum. In order to absorb  a gamma ray a thick piece of lead or concrete is needed. Because a gamma ray is a wave of energy, when it is absorbed a lot of energy is released and it is possible that other particles are emitted.image07.jpg

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