About the beneficial uses of radiation
Radioactive materials have a variety of important uses in medicine, industry, agriculture, and sterilisation, as well as in our homes.
Perhaps the most important use of radioactive materials is in medicine. Radiopharmaceuticals—drugs that contain radioactive material—are important in the diagnosis and treatment of many diseases. They can be injected into the body, inhaled, or taken orally as medicines or to enable imaging of internal organs and bodily processes.
Millions of people in Australia and around the world have benefited from the diagnostic and therapeutic qualities of radioactive materials. In 2002–03 alone there were over 590 000 nuclear medicine services in Australia. In medical procedures such as cancer diagnosis and treatment, around 500 000 patients have benefited from a radioisotope produced by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation.
Australian industry uses radioactive materials in a variety of ways to improve productivity and safety and to obtain information that could not be obtained in other ways.
Radioactive materials are used in industrial radiography, civil engineering, materials analysis, measuring devices, process control in factories, oil and mineral exploration, and checking oil and gas pipelines for leaks and weaknesses. These uses directly and indirectly influence our everyday lives. For example, measuring devices containing radioactive materials are used in tasks ranging from testing the moisture content of soils during road construction, to measuring the thickness of paper and plastics during manufacturing, to checking the height of fluid when filling bottles in factories. Radioactive materials are even used in devices designed to detect explosives.
In agriculture, radioactive materials are used to improve food crops, preserve food, and control insect pests. They are also used to measure soil moisture content, erosion rates, salinity, and the efficiency of fertiliser uptake in the soil.
Sterilisation and irradiation
Sterilisation is one of the most beneficial uses of radiation. Syringes, dressings, surgical gloves and instruments, and heart valves can be sterilised after packaging by using radiation. Radiation sterilisation can be used where more traditional methods, such as heat treatment, cannot be used, such as in the sterilisation of powders and ointments and in biological preparations like tissue grafts.
Other products can be irradiated in order to kill parasites, such as raw wool, archival documents, and timber. Food can be irradiated to extend shelf-life and reduce the risk of disease.
Radioactive materials are used as tracers to measure environmental processes, including the monitoring of silt, water and pollutants. They are used to measure and map effluent and pollution discharges from factories and sewerage plants, and the movement of sand around harbours, rivers and bays. Radioactive materials used for such purposes have short half-lives and decay to background levels within days.
In our homes
Most first-aid kits found in our homes contain items sterilised by radiation, including cotton wool, bandages, and burn dressings.
One of the most common uses of radioactive materials in the home is in smoke detectors. Most of these life-saving devices contain tiny amounts of radioactive material which make the detectors sensitive to smoke. The radiation dose to the occupants of the house is very much less than that from background radiation.
For more information about radiation, see Radiation and radioactive waste.