Difference between Ionizing and non Ionizing Radiation

Ionizing and Non-ionizing Radiation: Their Difference and Possible Health Consequences

Radiation is a type of energy that is everywhere anytime. It can be in the form of waves or particles and may come from sources that are either natural or man-made. Radiation is further classified into two forms – ionizing radiation and non-ionizing radiation. It is said that all forms of radiation have health consequences. However, between the ionizing and non-ionizing forms, it is the former that is cause for the most concern.

The ionizing form of radiation has the power to create charged ions by displacing electrons in atoms. Non-ionizing radiation, on the other hand, has the capacity to change the position of atoms but not to alter their structure, composition, and properties.

Even without producing heat, ionizing radiation can actually change the biological tissue’s chemistry. It is estimated that about eighty percent of our exposure to ionizing radiation emanates from natural sources. Foremost of these natural sources is the background radiation emitted by radon (a heavy, radioactive, gaseous element formed by radium’s decay) and its waste products.

The two other natural sources of ionizing radiation are the radioactive substances contained in rocks and soil, and the cosmic rays from the sun or even the far-off stars. Man-made sources of ionizing radiation include the different medical imaging technologies, such as radiotherapy or diagnostic X-rays and computerized tomography, as well as coal-fired power generating stations and nuclear reactors. Radioactive wastes not properly stored are indisputable sources of ionizing radiation.

Some examples of non-ionizing radiation are the visible light, ultraviolet and infrared waves, and the electromagnetic waves from radio or television. The electromagnetic fields that emit from power lines and those given off by such items of convenience – as cellular phones, microwaves, and electric blankets – are sorts of non-ionizing radiation, too.

Despite its not being able to break chemical bonds, non-ionizing radiation can cause physical alterations. A good example would be the sun’s ultraviolet and infrared waves which can cause damage to the skin and the eyes. Over time, these can increase the risk of skin cancer and loss of sight. Another example is microwave radiation which can ruin tissues by heating them. It is also thought that powerful electromagnetic fields may cause cancer, but this proposition still needs further researches and studies.

Whether ionizing or non-ionizing, radiation passes through the body, but it usually does not leave a trace. Overexposure to radiation can affect tissues which may result to molecular damage that can lead to cancer. In children of exposed individuals, for example, the affected genetic materials of cells in the sex organs may result to birth defects. This is one of the reasons why the use of radiation for medical or diagnostic purposes must be carefully regulated.


1. “Non-Ionizing Radiation,” Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), Safety and Health Topics – http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/radiation_nonionizing/index.html

2. “Ionizing Radiation” (and all relevant links), Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), Safety and Health Topics – http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/radiationionizing/index.html

3. “Radiation: Non-Ionizing and Ionizing” – http://www.epa.gov/radiation/understand