Non-ionizing radiation


Non-ionizing (or non-ionising) radiation refers to any type of electromagnetic radiation that does not carry enough energy per quantum to ionize atoms or molecules—that is, to completely remove an electron from an atom or molecule.[1] Instead of producing charged ions when passing through matter, the electromagnetic radiation has sufficient energy only for excitation, the movement of an electron to a higher energy state. The region at which radiation becomes considered as "ionizing" is not well defined, since different molecules and atoms ionize at different energies. The usual definitions have suggested that radiation with particle or photon energies less than 10 electronvolts (eV) be considered non-ionizing. Another suggested threshold is 33 electronvolts, which is the energy needed to ionize water molecules. The light from the Sun that reaches the earth is largely composed of non-ionizing radiation, since the ionizing far-ultraviolet rays have been filtered out by the gases in the atmosphere, particularly oxygen. The remaining ultraviolet radiation from the Sun is in the non-ionizing band, and causes molecular damage (for example, sunburn) by photochemical and free-radical-producing means that do not ionize.[2] Different biological effects are observed for different types of non-ionizing radiation.[3][2] A difficulty is that there is no controversy that the upper frequencies of non-ionizing radiation near these energies (much of the spectrum of UV light and some visible light) is capable of non-thermal biological damage, similar to ionizing radiation. Health debate therefore centers on the non-thermal effects of radiation of much lower frequencies (microwave and radiowave radiation). Near ultraviolet, visible light, infrared, microwave, radio waves, and low-frequency RF (longwave) are all examples of non-ionizing radiation. By contrast, far ultraviolet light, X-rays, gamma-rays, and all particle radiation from radioactive decay are regarded as ionizing. Visible and near ultraviolet electromagnetic radiation may induce photochemical reactions, or accelerate radical reactions, such as photochemical aging of varnishes[4] or the breakdown of flavoring compounds in beer to produce the "lightstruck flavor".[5] Near ultraviolet radiation, although tec nically non-ionizing, may still excite and cause photochemical reactions in some molecules. This happens because at ultraviolet photon energies, molecules may become electronically-excited or promoted to free-radical form, even without ionization taking place. The occurrence of ionization depends on the energy of the individual particles or waves, and not on their number. An intense flood of particles or waves will not cause ionization if these particles or waves do not carry enough energy to be ionizing, unless they raise the temperature of a body to a point high enough to ionize small fractions of atoms or molecules by the process of thermal-ionization. In such cases, even "non-ionizing radiation" is capable of causing thermal-ionization if it deposits enough heat to raise temperatures to ionization energies. These reactions occur at far higher energies than with non-ionization radiation, which requires only single particles to ionize. A familiar example of thermal ionization is the flame-ionization of a common fire, and the browning (chemical process) reactions in common food items induced by infrared radiation, during broiling-type cooking. The energy of particles of non-ionizing radiation is low, and instead of producing charged ions when passing through matter, non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation has only sufficient energy to change the rotational, vibrational or electronic valence configurations of molecules and atoms. This produces thermal effects. The possible non-thermal effects of non-ionizing forms of radiation on living tissue have only recently been studied. Much of the current debate is about relatively low levels of exposure to RF radiation from mobile phones and base stations producing "non-thermal" effects. Some experiments have suggested that there may be biological effects at non-thermal exposure levels, but the evidence for production of health hazard is contradictory and unproven. The scientific community and international bodies acknowledge that further research is needed to improve our understanding in some areas. Meanwhile the consensus is that there is no consistent and convincing scientific evidence of adverse health effects caused by RF radiation at powers sufficiently low that no thermal health effects are produced.