The Differences Between Ionizing and Non-Ionizing Electromagnetic Radiation

RF Transmission Tower

Our interaction with radiation seems to be everywhere nowadays — from listening to the radio for news updates, checking the phone for texts and emails, watching movies on your Smart TV, and even going out in the sun. In your school Science class, you might have learned that radiation is a form of energy that is either emitted or transmitted from an energy source in the form of waves or particles through a medium. The source can radiate the energy as sound or radio waves, heat, light or electricity. The sun’s radiation provides heat to the earth in general.

Is Radiation Harmful?

The radiation that we are mostly exposed to isn’t usually harmful to us — depending on the level being emitted and how it is used. Our body gives off radiation in the form of body heat (infrared). This isn’t harmful to anyone and it helps to stabilize our body. On the other hand, the sun also produces radiation and exposure to it in sufficient amounts may cause sunburns, skin discoloration, or worse, skin cancer. With this, the higher the frequency and dose of the emitted or transmitted energy, the greater the risks are.

Ionizing Electromagnetic Radiation

Ionizing radiation is the type of radiation with the highest frequencies and shortest wavelengths. It carries high energy that can have enough power to ionize atoms or molecules – that is, to completely remove an electron from an atom or molecule. As a result it can even change the cell structures in our bodies. Thus, it poses potential health risks to those who are exposed to it. Human cells generally have the ability to repair and regenerate themselves after exposure to toxins. However, prolonged and/or direct exposure to ionizing radiation can alter our DNA and adversely affect our cells and their structures. When this happens, cells may begin to malfunction and sometimes result in certain illnesses such as cancer.

Ionizing electromagnetic radiation is present in some occupational settings such as medical facilities where X-Rays and CT scans are available, nuclear power plants, research laboratories, manufacturing and construction companies, workplaces where levels of naturally-occurring radioactive materials (NORM) and technologically-enhanced naturally-occurring radioactive material (TENORM) are high. Ultraviolet energy, a component of sunlight, is also part of the ionizing portion of the electromagnetic energy spectrum.

Non-ionizing Electromagnetic Radiation

Non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation refers to that part of the energy spectrum that does not carry enough energy to dissociate an electron from an atom or molecule. This type of energy, when it passes through matter can cause, in high enough doses and at certain frequencies, an increase in the vibration of water molecules. This results in the generation of heat (through friction). This is exactly the principle of how a microwave oven heats food.

Exposure to non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation does not cause the same harmful effects as ionizing radiation such as cancer. Examples of non-ionizing electronic radiation include the heat from our body, visible light, and extremely low frequency (ELF) energy waves produced by electrical wiring and appliances. Radiofrequency (RF) and microwave radiation are also forms of non-ionizing electronic radiation that are emitted from cell phone, radio and television antennas.

In summary, exposure to any electromagnetic radiation can be harmful to us if in large amounts or at very high frequencies (in the ionizing part of the spectrum). While non-ionizing electromagnetic radiations may not cause cancer, exposure to it in high enough doses can still have potential adverse effects. Overexposure to the sun’s light radiation may harm our eyes and skin. It is important to control exposure to ionizing electromagnetic radiation sources as it can increase your risks of a chronic disease or life-threatening cancer. While the effects of exposure to non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation carry less dire consequences, it is important to understand that exposure to high levels of this type of energy can also be harmful.