We already know that radioactive elements can be used to make electricity, treat cancer, and create bombs with massive destructive power. But radiation is also has many other uses in our everyday life that might not have occurred to you.
10. Sterilize Food
Yep. Food. Meats, shellfish, vegetables, and even spices have all been approved by the FDA for irradiation. Exposing food to radiation kills any bacteria or organisms that may cause nasty illnesses like E. Coli or Salmonella. The process also kills any bugs that may be living on fruits shipping from tropical locales. Anyone who has read about the Brazilian Wandering spider knows this is a very good thing.
While putting the words ‘food’ and ‘radiation’ together may sound scary, the process doesn’t make our food radioactive. In fact, you really can’t tell the difference between irradiated and non-irradiated food in terms of taste, texture, or nutritious value. But you definitely will be able to tell the difference between lettuce with E. Coli and lettuce without E. Coli. Trust me on this one.
9. Treat Pain
In the medical world, radiation can be used to treat patients with severe pain resulting from late-stage cancer. This procedure is called palliative radiation therapy and it can really transform the quality of life for cancer patients.
In some patients, the cancer can metastasize to the bone causing painful tumors. Shooting these tumors with radiation can shrink them and result in significant pain reduction for the patient. This treatment will not cure the cancer, but it can be a lifesaver for patients with advanced stages of cancer. A study was published in 2010 that demonstrated the incredible effects of radiation therapy. The study examined five patients with bone marrow cancer. All suffered from intense pain. Some were even wheelchair bound as a result. After receiving radiation therapy, the majority were pain free, and the results lasted as long as three years. Pretty amazing, right?
8. Test Welds for Cracks
Picture this. We’re standing on the observation deck of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, admiring the beautiful view of Dubai. Beneath us is almost 55,000 tons of steel rebar and 110,000 tons of concrete. This is the time we should be really thankful for radiographers. They are the ones that test welds for cracks, irregularities, or weak spots. Here’s how it works: radiographers place a detector behind the weld and then use a small radiation source to shoot x-rays or gamma rays at it. Any places where the weld is thin or cracked will allow the rays through where they are picked up by the detector, giving a clear picture of any weld deficiencies.
7. Track Substances in the Body
If you have ever had a heart attack, you may be familiar with this one. This nifty application allows scientists to attach a radioactive “tracer” to a substance and use the radioactivity coming from the tracer to follow the path of the substance. This is used a lot as a diagnostic test to determine heart health. The patient is injected with a radioactive isotope with a short half life (so they aren’t leaking radioactivity all over the place for weeks), usually Technetium-99. Doctors can then get a clear picture of how the blood is moving through the heart. A similar method can be used to trace groundwater movement. By adding tritium (a radioactive hydrogen isotope) to water, we can see exactly the path the water is taking. Three cheers for science!
6. Carbon Dating
Now this is one you have probably heard of. In case you haven’t, carbon dating is a method of using radioactivity to determine the approximate age of an artifact, as long as that artifact was once alive. For example bone, wood, fabrics can all be dated. Metal, stone not so much. This is because carbon dating requires that the object contain a little carbon-14. Plants get it by absorbing carbon dioxide. Animals get it by eating the plants. When the animal or plant dies, it stops taking in new carbon-14 and the radioactive element slowly decays away with a half-life of 5,700 years. By measuring the current amount of carbon-14, scientists can figure out how much time has passed. Even though it can’t be directly used on non-living things, any particles attached to an artifact that do meet the carbon-14 criteria can be tested (i.e. a stone bowl with some linen particles embedded), giving a rough age estimate. And when we are talking in terms of thousands of years, a rough estimate will do just fine.
5. Smoke Detectors and Exit Signs
When we accidentally burn our morning eggs, radiation comes to the rescue in the form of a smoke detector. The vast majority of homes have ionizing smoke detectors in them. These detectors have teeny tiny amounts of radioactive material (typically americium-241) and electrically charged metal plates. The radiation ionizes the air, creating an electrical current between the plates. When the smoke from the eggs enters the chamber, the smoke particles disrupt the current causing the detector to alarm and giving us plenty of time to put out the egg fire. But what happens if we put on our super noise cancelling headphones to have a quick pre-work dance party and totally miss the alarm until the rapidly descending smoke layer becomes noticeable? Well then we will see radiation at work again in the form of exit signs. These handy signs sometimes have radioactive tritium gas in them that glows in the dark, lighting our way even when the power goes out.
4. Genetically Mutate Plants
As we all learned from Spiderman, radiation exposure can cause DNA mutations. In humans, this can lead to not so good stuff like cancer. But doing the same thing to plants can result in some pretty useful changes to plant DNA that can improve taste, yield, and even resistance to disease. This method is already pretty widely used and scientists think it could make a dent in solving the world’s food crisis by producing crops that are easier to grow and use less land and pesticides. Now if the idea of mutant Hill People food makes you nervous, fret not. It doesn’t make the food radioactive and it is not the same process used to create Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) where DNA is spliced into a species, adding material that wasn’t there to begin with. Plants experience natural mutations all the time, this process just speeds that up. It’s the equivalent of hitting shuffle on your favorite party playlist. The songs are the same, but the vibe can totally change.
3. Ice Cream Quality Control
Did you ever wonder how every tub on Ben & Jerry’s is perfectly creamy and delicious every single time you eat the whole tub while binge watching Netflix in your PJs? The answer lies in radioisotope density gauges. A radioactive source is directed at the product, the material reflects some of the radiation back the source, where a sensor records it. The ratio of the source that is reflected back versus passes through can be used to calculate the density. Any carton that doesn’t make the cut isn’t shipped to stores. I think a lot of us would heroically volunteer to help out with the subpar sweets. These density gauges are used all over the food industry to ensure consistency in soup, beer, and coffee, amongst many other things. They can even be used to test egg shells for thin, weak spots. It definitely isn’t as important as the ice cream thing, but I guess it has to be done.
2. Blue Topaz
Blue topaz does occur naturally, but most are artificially made by exposing more common varieties of topaz to radiation. The radiation changes the structure of the stone, knocking the atoms around and causing the gem to change color. The gem is then heated, producing a lovely blue color. The stone is stored until the levels of radiation emitted fall below allowed levels. This same process is also done to diamonds and other gems to produce fancy colors at less than fancy color prices.
1. Check Food for Metal
Have you ever bitten in to a hot dog and gotten a mouthful of bone? No? Well you may have food x-ray scanners to thank. Many manufacturers have started requiring that their food go thorough specialized x-ray machines that can check for metal shards, bones, rocks, and any other items that we generally don’t want in our pizza or ice cream. The scanners use sophisticated software that does the hard work of detecting any foreign objects. No humans necessary. And just like Item 1, this process is also not dangerous. In fact, the x-ray machines expose the food to about the same amount of radiation they would get from natural sources in 2.5 hours of just sitting around. The bigger danger would be chomping down on a sandwich and getting a lovely metallic surprise!