Radiation Myths & Facts

For many of us radiation is a mysterious thing. We hope to clear up a few myths below. If you have a question about radiation or have heard something you want to verify, send your question to our radiation health physics professionals at RadiationInfo@doh.wa.gov. Pictured on this page:is the first X-ray taken in 1895 by Wilhelm Röntgen.

Radiation Myth: The Columbia River isn't safe because Hanford is poisoning it with radiation.

Fact: For many years, nuclear reactors at Hanford were cooled by water from the Columbia. Despite that the reactors have been closed down, there is still radioactive contamination on the site. Some of this certainly entered the Columbia River. Much of the radioactive material decayed away very quickly. Some is in the sediment behind the many dams between Hanford and the Pacific. The simple fact is that the river is flowing at such a high rate, and there is very little radioactive material getting into the river now. The Columbia River is sampled for possible radiation at several points in its journey to the Pacific Ocean. The river meets criteria set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for radioactivity in drinking water (less than 4 millirems per year). Of course, you should be sure to check for drinking water advisories anywhere you live in the state. The Office of Radiation Protection continuously monitors for radioactivity in Washington state, mainly near Navy bases, the Columbia Generating Station nuclear power plant, and the Hanford Site.

Radiation Myth: We need to stay away from irradiated food because it's radioactive and dangerous.

Fact: Irradiation kills bacteria that makes you sick. It doesn't make the food radioactive or form harmful chemicals. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projects that if only 50 percent of food was irradiated, 1 million bacterial infections (such as those caused by E. coli and Listeria) could be avoided and 350 lives would be saved every year. The Office of Radiation Protection licenses and inspects industrial uses of radioactive materials. Visit the U.S. Food & Drug Administration for more information about food irradiation.

Radiation Myth: Radiation from a dental X-ray causes severe headaches.

Fact: Large doses of radiation can cause harmful effects like nausea and vomiting. Small doses of radiation – like those from medical and dental X-rays won't cause headaches or other problems. In fact over the years, the technology has improved to the point that many newer dental X-ray machines don't require lead shielding because there's so little radiation. The Office of Radiation Protection registers and inspects all X-ray machines in Washington. X-ray was discovered on November 8, 1895 by Wilhelm Röntgen.

Radiation Myth: Nuclear power plants give off dangerous amount of radiation to the surrounding area and can cause cancer.

Fact: Someone living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant would receive a radiation dose of .01 millirems per year, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The average person receives about 300 millirems per year from natural sources, such as the sun and rocks. Many people don't realize that coal power plants emit more radiation that a nuclear power plant because of the uranium and thorium contained in coal. This is still very small amount – 0.03 millirems – but slightly higher than nuclear power plants. Radiation from either type of plant is still very low and would not be a cause of cancer. The Office of Radiation Protection monitors air, soil, and water for radiation near the Columbia Generating Station nuclear power plant and trains emergency responders about radiation emergencies.