how does nuclear radiation work to damage the body?

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I don’t understand how nuclear radiation affects a geographical area to the point where it’s dangerous for a human to be there for extended periods of time.

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Radiation can be imagined as tiny bullets that are constantly being fired off from tiny bits of radioactive materials.

These materials remain active for a very long time and they’re constantly firing off their tiny bullets.

These bullets are incredibly tiny, but they tear through organic flesh at a cellular level, killing those cells.

The biggest problem is that we can ingest and breathe in these tiny bits of radioactive material. So these bits get lodged in our bodies and then our bodies are just blasted by the constant stream of tiny bullets.

When radiation gets into living cells, it’s like firing a cannon in a pottery store. It breaks and mangles anything it gets near, the worst place being the cell nucleus and the DNA stored there. This is why ingesting or inhaling radioactive material is very, very bad.

The geographic contamination part of your question is actually subtley different from that.

When radiation gets into places as fallout or as the result of some meltdown like at Chernobyl, the most dangerous form it can take is as dust in the air. This dust can get into your lungs and do the stuff I said in the first paragraph. The radiation isn’t actually making new dangerous material, it’s just covering everything in a toxic layer of dust.

Have you ever had a corrupted hard drive, where you looked at it and the files were all named “( @␣ d▐ ñ % E.mp♦” and the like? That happens because some outside interference opens and closes signals that aren’t supposed to be. Like a magnet, which pulls on the metal parts. (If you’ve never seen file corruption before, open some non-text file you aren’t going to miss in Notepad, and type and delete stuff in there.)

DNA is like a hard drive. One that files are constantly being copied from. The copied files are new cells.

Radioactivity is like a magnet that pulls on DNA like the metal parts of the drive. But the files get copied from them anyway, and they aren’t rendered correctly because they’re so damaged.

( @␣ d▐ ñ % E.mp♦ is a cancer cell. Just a few of them, and they can be deleted without much trouble. But when more and more files start turning into things like that, the data starts to become unrecoverable. And radiation speeds that up.

Think of radioactive material as a light source. It’s glowing. It’s just glowing at a frequency you can’t see with your bare eyes. Now, it’s glowing so intensely that the light penetrates straight through most materials. It goes through your clothes and through your skin. It’s so bright that it’s giving you a “sunburn” but not just on the top of your skin – all the way through and damages your actual dna inside each cell.

A little background before we get to the question : Heavier elements ( like Xenon, radon, etc) can be converted into lighter elements like Cesium by a process called nuclear fission which means dividing the nucleus. So what does nucleus mean? Nucleus of an element contains protons and neutrons which gives it mass.

So imagine I have a box of mangoes containing 12 mangoes called ‘box X’ and I create a small hole at the bottom of it, some small mangoes will fall out until they stop (maybe the hole got lodged by a bigger mango). So imagine 4 mangoes fell out and only 8 are left inside the box, since the quantities of mango inside has changed I now name it ‘box Y’.

So box X = Xenon and box Y = Cesium and the hole I created = instability and the bigger mango lodging the hole so no more mangoes fall = stability

So all unstable elements have a tendency to become stable by releasing some part of their nucleus (protons and neutrons) and this process results in a tremendous amount of energy released which could be used for various things. So those 4 mangoes falling from the hole is what radioactive decay/radiation is and it is of various types (alpha,beta,gamma)

Now imagine I pick one of the 4 fallen mangoes and throw it on top of a grape? What happens? Either I miss the grape or the grape gets squished partially/completely. Grape in this scenario are the cells of the body.

So nuclear radiation (X-rays, b decay, uv rays, gamma rays, etc) when released may collide with nucleus of our cell (mainly DNA) and since DNA is another molecule, it might become a part of it or damage it somehow changing it in a certain way.

Now DNA tells the cells what to do and what stuff to make, chiefly proteins (for simplicity). So damaged DNA — damaged proteins- proteins build other other important stuff— cells can’t make that stuff — cell dies or the part of the DNA that controls the division of the cell gets damaged resulting in unlimited division of the said cell resulting in cancer.

Now coming to your query about radiation effects in a geographical area. Let’s take Chernobyl for example. The main radioactive product their is Cesium-137 along with Strontium-90 I think. Imagine the mango crate but instead of 12 mangoes there are 12 million mangoes in there and they fall once every 3 hours and the grapes are sitting below the crate, it will take a long time for the crate to be completely stable/empty and it may or may not squish all the grapes in the process. Cesium-137 has a half life (the time it takes for it’s amount to reduce to half) of 30 years. So every 30 years, the amount of Cesium-137 reduces by half and it will take a while before it’s below safety levels and in the meantime it will keep on releasing radiation to get to a stable form. Some radioactive elements have a half life of hundreds and thousands of years. So the risk of radiation exposure and hence the above explained harmful effects are longer.

Hope this helps, feel free to ask any questions 🙂