Non-ionizing Radiation vs Ionizing Radiation

The Electromagnetic Spectrum, courtesy of: CDC

When you hear the word “radiation”, chances are you might feel scared because that word sounds dangerous. Most of the radiation we see commonly on TV are nuclear radiation, and that is what commonly comes to mind when it comes to radiation, and that it is dangerous and could cause life-threatening diseases.

So, for this article, we are going to discuss the difference between non-ionizing radiation and ionizing radiation.

Non-ionizing Radiation

Non-ionizing Radiation is a type of radiation described as a series of energy waves composed of oscillating electromagnetic fields travelling at a speed of light.

Figure 1: The more you move to the left, the lower the energy

As seen on this figure in the electromagnetic spectrum, longer waves have lower energy and are located at the left side and is divided between UV radiation and visible light. The longer the wavelength the lower the energy thus having a smaller chance, or no chance at all, to break molecules, DNA, or atoms.

This means, non-ionizing radiation have little to no chances of causing lethal diseases like cancer, although they can heat up objects. Which is why Microwave Ovens use them, for use in cooking.

Other everyday objects that emit non-ionizing radiation include cellphones, computers and even light bulbs.

Another common example is UV rays, which sits at the middle of non-ionizing radiation and ionizing radiation. While considered non-ionizing, it can pose health risks when exposed too much. A natural source of UV rays is the sun which also produces Vitamin D. According to WHO, a person must be exposed 5-15 minutes 2-3 times a week to sunlight to obtain enough Vitamin D. Prolonged exposure can cause skin burns and increases the chances of skin cancer.

What kind of radiation does a cellphone use?

Many communications and broadcasting devices use RF (radiofrequency) radiation to send out signals. These radiations are what makes it possible for us to receive Wi-Fi signals, receive and make calls, send text messages and more. This type of radiation is also what makes it possible for broadcasting companies to air television or radio programs. This type of radiation is also what makes 4G, 5G and LTE possible.

Is it dangerous? Not on a normal level. As seen on the figure above, RF radiation is non-ionizing and does not have the energy to break down molecules. In fact, they have the least energy in comparison to other non-ionizing radiation. So no Karen, 5G does not cause cancer.

If you are worried, there are still multiple studies being conducted on the health risks between our body and cell phone usage.

Ionizing Radiation

Figure I: The Electromagnetic Spectrum

Ionizing Radiation have the highest energy and the fastest moving waves. It is also divided between UV radiation and visible light. This also means that, with intense and long exposure, can remove electrons and can alter our cells’ molecules and DNA, which in turn could cause life-threatening diseases, such as cancer.

One common example being used daily is X-rays. They are used to see bones and can penetrate the body. Because X-rays are ionizing radiation, hospitals and clinics only use a minute amount of them, just enough to see your bones, because prolonged exposure can cause problems.