Background radiation and radioactivity in India

homeostatic control: Every time we eat a banana, we are introducing 14 Bq of K-40 into our body. The body retains only the amounts in the normal range essential for its functioning. — photo: M.A. SRIRAM  

We live in a sea of radiation. In any city, an unsuspecting owner of a 0.1 acre backyard garden may not know that the top one metre of soil from his garden contains 11,200 kg of potassium, 1.28 kg which is of potassium- 40 (K-40, a radioactive isotope of potassium), 3.6 kg of thorium and one kg of uranium.

These values may be higher or lower depending on the soil. Uranium and thorium decay through several radio-nuclides to lead, a stable element. The presence of radioactive nuclides does not pose any significant risk.

Total dose

The total annual external dose from sources in soil and cosmic rays in Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Delhi and Bengaluru is 0.484, 0.81, 0.79, 0.70 and 0.825 milligray respectively. Gray is a unit for absorbed dose; when the radiation energy imparted to a kg of material is one joule, it is called a gray. Since gray is very large, milligray (one thousandth of a gray), and microgray (one millionth of a gray), are commonly used.

Cosmic rays come from outer space. Their intensity at a place depends on the altitude. Cosmic rays alone contribute 0.28 milligray at the first three cities as they are at sea level; the column of air helps to reduce their intensity. At high altitudes, the protection from the column of air is less.

The cosmic ray contributions are higher at 0.31 milligray and 0.44 milligray respectively at Delhi and Bengaluru as these cities are at altitudes of 216 metre and 921 metre. Air passengers receive 5 microgray per hour from cosmic rays.

Parts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu are high background radiation areas (HBRA) because of the presence of large quantities of monazite in the soil. Thorium content in monazite ranges from 8-10.5 per cent. Researchers found that the radiation levels in 12 Panchayats in Karunagappally varied between 0.32 to 76 milligrays per year; the levels in 90 per cent of over 71,000 houses were more than one milligray per year.

The average value of population dose in HBRA is 3.8 milligray per year. One milligray is the average value for areas of normal background radiation. The units milligray and millisievert are the same in these instances. Study at the HBRA during 1990-99 by the researchers from the Regional Cancer Centre and Bhabha Atomic Research Centre did not show any health effect attributable to radiation.

Radon, which occurs in uranium series present in soil seeps into homes. In temperate areas radon decay products build up in air due to poor ventilation and deliver high doses to the lungs of millions of people. In tropics ventilation is adequate to disperse radon .In the United Kingdom persons in 5 per cent of the homes are exposed to doses above 23.7 mSv/year. One per cent of the population receives doses above 55.8 mSv/year. The highest estimated dose was 320 mSv/year in Cornwall.

All foodstuffs contain potassium-40 (K-40). We need potassium for sustenance. K-40 is 0.012 per cent of potassium. Once ingested, most of the potassium enters the blood stream directly and gets distributed to all tissues and organs.

Homeostatic control

The potassium content in the human body is strictly under homeostatic control. The body retains only the amounts in the normal range essential for its functioning; it is independent of the variations in the environmental levels.

The body excretes excess amounts with a biological half life of 30 days. K-40 delivers a constant annual radiation dose of 0.18 mSv to soft tissue. This dose is unavoidable as potassium is an essential element. Every time we eat a banana, we are introducing 14 Bq of K-40 in to our body. Trucks containing bananas have triggered radiation alarms at border posts in the U.S.

Brazil nut

Brazil nut is probably the most radioactive food. Scientists have measured 700Bq of radium per kg of Brazil nut.

The roots of the Brazil nut tree pass through acres of land; They have a tendency to concentrate barium; along with barium, the roots collect radium as well. Radium appears in the nuts. Many vegetables like brinjal, carrot etc. also contain the radioactive isotope.

Indian researchers have measured polonium-210 in fish and other marine organisms. Our whole body is hit by particles coming from all sides. Radiation is a part of our life. We cannot avoid eating food just because it contains radioactivity


( Raja Ramanna fellow, Department of Atomic Energy)