Ionizing radiation consists of subatomic particles or electromagnetic waves that are energetic enough to detach electrons from atoms or molecules, ionizing them. The occurrence of ionization depends on the energy of the impinging 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. Roughly speaking, particles or photons with energies above a few electron volts (eV) are ionizing.
Examples of ionizing particles are energetic alpha particles, beta particles, and neutrons. The ability of electromagnetic waves (photons) to ionize an atom or molecule depends on their wavelength. Radiation on the short wavelength end of the electromagnetic spectrum - ultraviolet, x-rays, and gamma rays - is ionizing.
Ionizing radiation comes from radioactive materials, x-ray tubes, particle accelerators, and is present in the environment. It is invisible and undetectable by human senses, so instruments such as geiger counters are required to detect its presence. It has many practical uses in medicine, research, construction, and other areas, but presents a health hazard if used improperly. Exposure to radiation causes microscopic damage to living tissue, resulting in skin burns, radiation sickness and death at high doses and cancer, tumors and genetic damage at low doses.
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