Food for the greater community

Gamma rays are the most powerful and potentially destructive type of electromagnetic radiation. This particularly nasty product of atomic bombs and the sun’s energy-making process can shred DNA, pick molecules apart piece-by-piece, make plants wither and die and even cause cancer.

Like most forms of radiation, however, the dose is as important as the energy of the waves. New research from NC State University has shown that we are exposed to gamma radiation every day in low doses, and that some very familiar objects emit safe levels of gamma radiation.

Robert Hayes, nuclear engineering professor at NC State and senior author of the study, said in a press release that understanding the radiation that we experience every day could reduce some of the fear and stigma toward radiation.

“We did this study because understanding how much radiation comes off of common household items helps place radiation readings in context," Hayes said. "It puts things in perspective."

When atoms change shape, they absorb and release energy. Atoms release gamma rays when the protons and neutrons in their nuclei shift from an unstable form to something more stable. This happens during nuclear fusion, the process of combining small nuclei that power the sun, and nuclear fission, the process of breaking large nuclei into pieces that power nuclear plants.

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