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Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation: Beir VII Phase 2
FIGURE 1-1 Linear energy transfer of protons and electrons in water. SOURCE: Data from ICRU (1970).
The effects of high-LET particles (i.e., protons and heavier ions) are outside the scope of this report. However, neutrons and their high relative biological effectiveness must be considered in the context of low-LET risk estimates derived from the observations on delayed health effects among A-bomb survivors. The reason is that a small fraction of the absorbed dose to A-bomb survivors was due not to the predominant high-energy γ-rays, but to fast neutrons. Because of the greater effectiveness of these fast neutrons, this small dose component must be taken into consideration.
Photon Spectral Distributions
The absorption and scattering of photons depends on their energy. The γ-rays from radioactive decay consist of monoenergetic photons that do not exceed several million electronvolts (MeV) in energy; γ-rays that result from the fission of uranium or plutonium have a spectrum of energies with a maximum of 2 MeV. Higher-energy γ-rays, up to 7 MeV, can be generated by inelastic scattering, as occurred in the neutron-nitrogen interaction from the atomic bomb explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Artificially produced X-rays have a wide spectrum of energies resulting from the deceleration of electrons as they traverse high-atomic-number materials. A continuous distribution of photon energies is generated, with a mean energy of about one-third the maximal energy of the accelerated electrons. Added filtration selectively removes the “soft” (i.e., less energetic) photon component and, thus, hardens the X-rays. Discrete energy “spikes” also occur in the X-ray spectrum; these spikes originate in the ejection of electrons from atoms of the affected element, which is followed by the transition of electrons from outer shells to inner shells of the atom releasing photons of discrete energy. Conventional X-rays, used for diagnostic radiology, are commonly produced with accelerating voltages of about 200 kV. For mammography, where high contrast is sought and only a moderate thickness of tissue must be traversed by the X-rays, the low acceleration voltage of 29 kV is usually employed.
There are three different types of energy-transfer processes whereby photons of sufficient energy eject electrons from an atom, which can then interact with other atoms and molecules to produce a cascade of alterations that ultimately lead to observable biological effects. These are the photoelectric process, Compton scattering, and pair production.
At low energies (<0.1 MeV), the photoelectric process dominates in tissue. A photon interacts with and ejects an electron from one of the inner shells of an atom. The photon is extinguished, and most of its energy is imparted to the ejected electron as kinetic energy.
At medium photon energies (about 0.5–3.5 MeV), Compton scattering is the most probable event. Compton scattering occurs when an incoming photon’s energy greatly exceeds the electron-binding energy of the affected atom. In this case the energy of the incoming photon is converted into the kinetic energy of an ejected electron and a secondary “scattered” photon. The scattered photon has less energy than the primary photon and can undergo further Compton scattering until its energy is sufficiently degraded for the photoelectric process to occur.
At energies greater than 1.02 MeV, pair production can occur. A photon interacts with an atomic nucleus, and the photon energy is converted into a positron and an electron. The photon energy above 1.02 MeV is converted into the kinetic energy of the newly created particles. The electron and the positron interact with and can ionize other molecules.