Radioactive pollution: Causes, Effects and Prevention

Radioactive Pollution: Highly Hazardous to Human Health 

-Dr. Arvind Singh 

Radioactive pollution is the increase in natural background radiation emerging from the activities of human beings involving the use of naturally occurring or artificially produced radioactive materials.

Radioactive substances are those which have the ability to emit high energy particles like alpha and beta particles and gamma rays. Radioactive substances are unstable in nature and are continuously emitting these particles in order to gain some stability. 

Radioactive pollution
Radioactive pollution is not a constant or regular phenomenon and hence the duration and frequency of pollution will vary with time and conditions. The three major types of conditions exist.

(i) Continuous pollution: This type of condition exists in Uranium mines, nuclear reactors and laboratories where the humans are under continuous exposure to radioactive contaminants. 

(ii) Accidental pollution: This type of condition exists during accidental exposure to radiations by virtue of equipment failure, radiation leak, faulty protective equipment etc; and 

(iii) Occasional pollution: This condition exists during an isolated experiment or test of nuclear substance.

Causes of Radioactive Pollution:

Radioactive pollution is increasing because of the increased use of radioactivity. It occurs mostly from the waste products that are left behind after the use of radioactive substances. Radioactive waste is usually the product of a nuclear process such as nuclear fission, which is extensively used in nuclear reactors, nuclear weapons and other nuclear fuel-cycles. 

Radioactive wastes are disposed of without any precautionary measures to isolate the emissions which then contaminate the air, soil and water. A large amount of radioactive waste is generated from nuclear reactors used in nuclear power plants and for many other purposes. It occurs during the extraction and refining of the radioactive material. Nuclear accidents and nuclear explosions are the two worst man-made sources of radioactive pollution. 

The major sources where radioactive wastes are generated and are responsible for radioactive pollution are as follows:

(i) Uranium mining 
(ii) Production of nuclear fuel 
(iii) Nuclear power reactors 
(iv) Use of radionuclides in industries for various application 
(v) Nuclear tests carried out by the Defense Personnel; and 
(vi) Disposal of nuclear waste.

What is Fallout?

The radioactive pollution that is spread through the earth’s atmosphere is called “Fallout”. The best instance of fallout is the nuclear bomb attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in 1945 by the United States during the Second World War. As a result of nuclear bomb explosion, more than 2 lakh people died from long-term exposure to radiation within five years of attack owing to radiation effect and cancer.

Effects of Radioactive Pollution on Human Health:

Radioactive substances are among the most toxic substances known. Marie Curie, the Nobel laureate for discovery of radioactivity in 1903, became the victim of radioactive pollution and died of leukaemia. 

Low levels of radiation exposure on a small portion of the body may just affect the cell membranes and cause mild skin irritation. Other immediate effects of short span exposure of nuclear radiation are nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, loss of hair and nails, bruises owing to subcutaneous bleeding etc.

High radiation exposures have much acute toxicity and can quickly kill the victim. The victim declines in vitality and dies from anaemia, infection and haemorrhage.

High exposure to radiation in the gestation period causes brain damage. Infants between the eight and fifteen weeks of pregnancy who were exposed to the atomic attack in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II were reported to have a greater incidence of brain damage with side effects including lower Intelligent Quotient (IQ) and severe mental retardation in some cases. 

The most sensitive organs of human bodies to high radiation exposure are intestines, lymph nodes, spleen, bone marrow and gonads. The radiation weakens the immune system of the body. 

Delayed effects of radiation include cataracts, leukaemia, malignant tumours, cardiovascular disorders, premature ageing and reduced life span. The radiation can cause irreparable damage to the genetic material and lead to a life-threatening condition. Radiation causes genetic mutations that promote the growth of cancerous cells in the body. The effects of genetic mutation tend to pass on to future generation. 

Control of Radioactive Pollution:

Since radioactive pollution is highly hazardous to human health, therefore, prevention and control of radioactive pollution are inevitable. The radioactive pollution can be controlled by a number of ways which are as follows: 

• Leakage from the radioactive materials including the nuclear reactors, industries and laboratories need to be checked.

• The disposal of radioactive material must be safe and secure.

• Radioactive materials must be stored in safe places and must be changed into a harmless form.

• The radioactive wastes with very low radiation must be put into the sewage.

• Nuclear power plants must follow all the safety instructions.

• The protective garments must be worn by the workers who work in nuclear plants.

• The natural radiation must be at the permissible limits.

• Nuclear devices should be exploded underground.

• Contaminants may be employed to decrease the radioactive emissions.

• Production of radioisotopes needs to be minimized.

• Extreme precautions should be taken during the disposal of industrial wastes containing radionuclides.

• High chimney and ventilations should be used at working places where radioactive contamination is high.

• In nuclear reactors, closed-cycle coolant system with gaseous coolants of very high purity may be used to prevent extraneous activation products.

• Fission reactions need to be minimized.

• In nuclear mines, wet drilling may be employed along with underground drainage.

• Nuclear medicines and radiation therapy should only be applied when absolutely necessary.


Radioactive pollution adversely affects human health often leading to death, hence it is the most dangerous form of pollution among all pollution types. Since the radiation targets the genetic material therefore the defects caused are transmitted from parents to offspring. Hence prevention and control of radioactive pollution are inevitable to avoid its harmful effects on human health.

Dr. Arvind Singh is M. Sc. and Ph. D. in Botany with an area of specialization in Ecology. He is a dedicated  Researcher having more than four dozen published Research Papers in the Journals of National and International repute. His main area of Research is Restoration of Mined Lands. However, he has also conducted research on the Vascular Flora of Banaras Hindu University-Main Campus, India.

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