Non-ionizing radiation

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Different types of electromagnetic radiation EM-spectrum.svg
Different types of electromagnetic radiation

Non-ionizing (or non-ionising) radiation refers to any type of electromagnetic radiation that does not carry enough energy per quantum (photon energy) to ionize atoms or moleculesthat is, to completely remove an electron from an atom or molecule. [1] Instead of producing charged ions when passing through matter, non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation has sufficient energy only for excitation, the movement of an electron to a higher energy state. In contrast, ionizing radiation has a higher frequency and shorter wavelength than non-ionizing radiation, and can be a serious health hazard; exposure to it can cause burns, radiation sickness, cancer, and genetic damage. Using ionizing radiation requires elaborate radiological protection measures, which in general are not required with non-ionizing radiation.


The region at which radiation becomes considered as "ionizing" is not well defined, since different molecules and atoms ionize at different energies. The usual definitions have suggested that radiation with particle or photon energies less than 10 electronvolts (eV) be considered non-ionizing. Another suggested threshold is 33 electronvolts, which is the energy needed to ionize water molecules. The light from the Sun that reaches the earth is largely composed of non-ionizing radiation, since the ionizing far-ultraviolet rays have been filtered out by the gases in the atmosphere, particularly oxygen. The remaining ultraviolet radiation from the Sun causes molecular damage (for example, sunburn) by photochemical and free-radical-producing means.[ citation needed ]

Different biological effects are observed for different types of non-ionizing radiation. [2] [3] [4] The upper frequencies of non-ionizing radiation near these energies (much of the spectrum of UV light and some visible light) are capable of non-thermal biological damage, similar to ionizing radiation. Health debate therefore centers on the non-thermal effects of radiation of much lower frequencies (microwave, millimetre and radiowave radiation). The International Agency for Research on Cancer recently stated that there could be some risk from non-ionizing radiation to humans. [5] But a subsequent study reported that the basis of the IARC evaluation was not consistent with observed incidence trends. [6] This and other reports suggest that there is virtually no way that results on which the IARC based its conclusions are correct. [7]

Mechanisms of interaction with matter, including living tissue

Near ultraviolet, visible light, infrared, microwave, radio waves, and low-frequency radio frequency (longwave) are all examples of non-ionizing radiation. By contrast, far ultraviolet light, X-rays, gamma-rays, and all particle radiation from radioactive decay are ionizing. Visible and near ultraviolet electromagnetic radiation may induce photochemical reactions, or accelerate radical reactions, such as photochemical aging of varnishes [8] or the breakdown of flavoring compounds in beer to produce the "lightstruck flavor". [9] Near ultraviolet radiation, although technically non-ionizing, may still excite and cause photochemical reactions in some molecules. This happens because at ultraviolet photon energies, molecules may become electronically excited or promoted to free-radical form, even without ionization taking place.

The occurrence of ionization depends on the energy of the 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, unless they raise the temperature of a body to a point high enough to ionize small fractions of atoms or molecules by the process of thermal-ionization. In such cases, even "non-ionizing radiation" is capable of causing thermal-ionization if it deposits enough heat to raise temperatures to ionization energies. These reactions occur at far higher energies than with ionizing radiation, which requires only a single particle to ionize. A familiar example of thermal ionization is the flame-ionization of a common fire, and the browning reactions in common food items induced by infrared radiation, during broiling-type cooking.

The energy of particles of non-ionizing radiation is low, and instead of producing charged ions when passing through matter, non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation has only sufficient energy to change the rotational, vibrational or electronic valence configurations of molecules and atoms. This produces thermal effects. The possible non-thermal effects of non-ionizing forms of radiation on living tissue have only recently been studied. Much of the current debate is about relatively low levels of exposure to radio frequency (RF) radiation from mobile phones and base stations producing "non-thermal" effects. Some experiments have suggested that there may be biological effects at non-thermal exposure levels, but the evidence for production of health hazard is contradictory and unproven. The scientific community and international bodies acknowledge that further research is needed to improve our understanding in some areas. Meanwhile the consensus is that there is no consistent and convincing scientific evidence of adverse health effects caused by RF radiation at powers sufficiently low that no thermal health effects are produced. [2] [4]

However, multi-photon technologies such as those used in pulsed lasers do combine photons of energy below the ionization threshold [10] . These multi-photon techniques can be used to ionize with microwaves. Even if a microwave field is relatively weak, this multi-photon ionization is much more efficient than a direct one-photon ionization at high photon energies and can result in ionization [11] . As microwave technology is developed for generations of telecommunications that depend of the effective transmission of photons, these multi-photon fields and beams become more and more effective at ionization. Ionization occurs in the environment from both natural and manufactured sources and consideration should be made for the increases in it from multi-photon sources with consideration for the health effects.

Health risks

Non-ionizing radiation hazard sign Radio waves hazard symbol.svg
Non-ionizing radiation hazard sign

Non-ionizing radiation can produce non-mutagenic effects such as inciting thermal energy in biological tissue that can lead to burns. In 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) from the World Health Organization (WHO) released a statement adding RF electromagnetic fields (including microwave and millimetre waves) to their list of things which are possibly carcinogenic to humans. [3]

In terms of potential biological effects, the non-ionizing portion of the spectrum can be subdivided into:

  1. The optical radiation portion, where electron excitation can occur (visible light, infrared light)
  2. The portion where the wavelength is smaller than the body. Heating via induced currents can occur. In addition there are claims of other adverse biological effects. Such effects are not well understood and even largely denied. (Microwave and higher-frequency RF).
  3. The portion where the wavelength is much larger than the body, and heating via induced currents seldom occurs (lower-frequency RF, power frequencies, static fields). [2]

The above effects have only been shown to be due to heating effects. At low power levels where there is no heating effect, the risk of cancer is not significant. [12] [ failed verification ]

[4] SourceWavelengthFrequencyBiological effects
UVA Black light, Sunlight318–400 nm750–950 THzEye: photochemical cataract; skin: erythema, including pigmentation
Visible light Sunlight, fire, LEDs, light bulbs, lasers 400–780 nm385–750 THzEye: photochemical & thermal retinal injury; skin: photoaging
IR-A Sunlight, thermal radiation, incandescent light bulbs, lasers, remote controls780 nm – 1.4 µm215–385 THzEye: thermal retinal injury, thermal cataract; skin: burn
IR-B Sunlight, thermal radiation, incandescent light bulbs, lasers 1.4–3 µm100–215 THzEye: corneal burn, cataract; skin: burn
IR-C Sunlight, thermal radiation, incandescent light bulbs, far-infrared laser 3 µm – 1 mm300 GHz – 100 THzEye: corneal burn, cataract; heating of body surface
Microwave Mobile/cell phones, microwave ovens, cordless phones, millimeter waves, airport millimeter scanners, motion detectors, long-distance telecommunications, radar, Wi-Fi 1 mm – 33 cm1–300 GHzHeating of body tissue
Radio-frequency radiation Mobile/cell phones, television, FM, AM, shortwave, CB, cordless phones33 cm – 3 km100 kHz – 1 GHzHeating of body tissue, raised body temperature
Low-frequency RFPower lines>3 km<100 kHzCumulation of charge on body surface; disturbance of nerve & muscle responses [13]
Static field [2] Strong magnets, MRIInfinite0 Hz (technically static fields are not "radiation")Electric charge on body surface

Types of non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation

Near ultraviolet radiation

Ultraviolet light can cause burns to skin [14] and cataracts to the eyes. [14] Ultraviolet is classified into near, medium and far UV according to energy, where near and medium ultraviolet are technically non-ionizing, but where all UV wavelengths can cause photochemical reactions that to some extent mimic ionization (including DNA damage and carcinogenesis). UV radiation above 10 eV (wavelength shorter than 125 nm) is considered ionizing. However, the rest of the UV spectrum from 3.1 eV (400 nm) to 10 eV, although technically non-ionizing, can produce photochemical reactions that are damaging to molecules by means other than simple heat. Since these reactions are often very similar to those caused by ionizing radiation, often the entire UV spectrum is considered to be equivalent to ionization radiation in its interaction with many systems (including biological systems).

For example, ultraviolet light, even in the non-ionizing range, can produce free radicals that induce cellular damage, and can be carcinogenic. Photochemistry such as pyrimidine dimer formation in DNA can happen through most of the UV band, including much of the band that is formally non-ionizing. Ultraviolet light induces melanin production from melanocyte cells to cause sun tanning of skin. Vitamin D is produced on the skin by a radical reaction initiated by UV radiation.

Plastic (polycarbonate) sunglasses generally absorb UV radiation. UV overexposure to the eyes causes snow blindness, common to areas with reflective surfaces, such as snow or water.

Visible light

Light, or visible light, is the very narrow range of electromagnetic radiation that is visible to the human eye (about 400–700 nm), or up to 380–750 nm. [4] More broadly, physicists refer to light as electromagnetic radiation of all wavelengths, whether visible or not.

High-energy visible light is blue-violet light with a higher damaging potential.


Infrared (IR) light is electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength between 0.7 and 300 micrometers, which equates to a frequency range between approximately 1 and 430 THz. IR wavelengths are longer than that of visible light, but shorter than that of terahertz radiation microwaves. Bright sunlight provides an irradiance of just over 1 kilowatt per square meter at sea level. Of this energy, 527 watts is infrared radiation, 445 watts is visible light, and 32 watts is ultraviolet radiation. [4]


Microwaves are electromagnetic waves with wavelengths ranging from as long as one meter to as short as one millimeter, or equivalently, with frequencies between 300 MHz (0.3 GHz) and 300 GHz. This broad definition includes both UHF and EHF (millimeter waves), and various sources use different boundaries. [4] In all cases, microwave includes the entire SHF band (3 to 30 GHz, or 10 to 1 cm) at minimum, with RF engineering often putting the lower boundary at 1 GHz (30 cm), and the upper around 100 GHz (3mm). Applications include cellphone (mobile) telephones, radars, airport scanners, microwave ovens, earth remote sensing satellites, and radio and satellite communications.

Radio waves

Radio waves are a type of electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum longer than infrared light. Like all other electromagnetic waves, they travel at the speed of light. Naturally occurring radio waves are made by lightning, or by astronomical objects. Artificially generated radio waves are used for fixed and mobile radio communication, broadcasting, radar and other navigation systems, satellite communication, computer networks and innumerable other applications. Different frequencies of radio waves have different propagation characteristics in the Earth's atmosphere; long waves may cover a part of the Earth very consistently, shorter waves can reflect off the ionosphere and travel around the world, and much shorter wavelengths bend or reflect very little and travel on a line of sight.

Very low frequency (VLF)

Very low frequency or VLF is the range of RF of 3 to 30 kHz. Since there is not much bandwidth in this band of the radio spectrum, only the very simplest signals are used, such as for radio navigation. Also known as the myriametre band or myriametre wave as the wavelengths range from ten to one myriametre (an obsolete metric unit equal to 10 kilometres).

Extremely low frequency (ELF)

Extremely low frequency (ELF) is the range of radiation frequencies from 300 Hz to 3 kHz. In atmosphere science, an alternative definition is usually given, from 3 Hz to 3 kHz. [4] In the related magnetosphere science, the lower frequency electromagnetic oscillations (pulsations occurring below ~3 Hz) are considered to be in the ULF range, which is thus also defined differently from the ITU Radio Bands.

Thermal radiation

Thermal radiation, a common synonym for infra-red when it occurs at temperatures commonly encountered on Earth, is the process by which the surface of an object radiates its thermal energy in the form of electromagnetic waves. Infrared radiation that one can feel emanating from a household heater, infra-red heat lamp, or kitchen oven are examples of thermal radiation, as is the IR and visible light emitted by a glowing incandescent light bulb (not hot enough to emit the blue high frequencies and therefore appearing yellowish; fluorescent lamps are not thermal and can appear bluer). Thermal radiation is generated when the energy from the movement of charged particles within molecules is converted to the radiant energy of electromagnetic waves. The emitted wave frequency of the thermal radiation is a probability distribution depending only on temperature, and for a black body is given by Planck's law of radiation. Wien's displacement law gives the most likely frequency of the emitted radiation, and the Stefan–Boltzmann law gives the heat intensity (power emitted per area).

Parts of the electromagnetic spectrum of thermal radiation may be ionizing, if the object emitting the radiation is hot enough (has a high enough temperature). A common example of such radiation is sunlight, which is thermal radiation from the Sun's photosphere and which contains enough ultraviolet light to cause ionization in many molecules and atoms. An extreme example is the flash from the detonation of a nuclear weapon, which emits a large number of ionizing X-rays purely as a product of heating the atmosphere around the bomb to extremely high temperatures.

As noted above, even low-frequency thermal radiation may cause temperature-ionization whenever it deposits sufficient thermal energy to raises temperatures to a high enough level. Common examples of this are the ionization (plasma) seen in common flames, and the molecular changes caused by the "browning" in food-cooking, which is a chemical process that begins with a large component of ionization.

Black-body radiation

Black body radiation is radiation from an idealized radiator that emits at any temperature the maximum possible amount of radiation at any given wavelength. A black body will also absorb the maximum possible incident radiation at any given wavelength. The radiation emitted covers the entire electromagnetic spectrum and the intensity (power/unit-area) at a given frequency is dictated by Planck's law of radiation. A black body at temperatures at or below room temperature would thus appear absolutely black as it would not reflect any light. Theoretically a black body emits electromagnetic radiation over the entire spectrum from very low frequency radio waves to X-rays. The frequency at which the black-body radiation is at maximum is given by Wien's displacement law.

See also

Related Research Articles

Electromagnetic radiation Form of energy emitted and absorbed by particles which are charged which shows wave-like behavior as it travels through space

In physics, electromagnetic radiation refers to the waves of the electromagnetic field, propagating (radiating) through space, carrying electromagnetic radiant energy. It includes radio waves, microwaves, infrared, (visible) light, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays.

The electromagnetic spectrum is the range of frequencies of electromagnetic radiation and their respective wavelengths and photon energies.

Light Electromagnetic radiation in or near visible spectrum

Light or visible light is electromagnetic radiation within the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that can be perceived by the human eye. Visible light is usually defined as having wavelengths in the range of 400–700 nanometers (nm), or 4.00 × 10−7 to 7.00 × 10−7 m, between the infrared and the ultraviolet. This wavelength means a frequency range of roughly 430–750 terahertz (THz).

Radiation Waves or particles propagating through space or through a medium, carrying energy

In physics, radiation is the emission or transmission of energy in the form of waves or particles through space or through a material medium. This includes:

Spectroscopy Study involving matter and electromagnetic radiation

Spectroscopy is the study of the interaction between matter and electromagnetic radiation. Historically, spectroscopy originated through the study of visible light dispersed according to its wavelength, by a prism. Later the concept was expanded greatly to include any interaction with radiative energy as a function of its wavelength or frequency, predominantly in the electromagnetic spectrum, although matter waves and acoustic waves can also be considered forms of radiative energy; recently, with tremendous difficulty, even gravitational waves have been associated with a spectral signature in the context of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and laser interferometry. Spectroscopic data are often represented by an emission spectrum, a plot of the response of interest, as a function of wavelength or frequency.

Ultraviolet Electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength shorter than that of visible light, but longer than X-rays

Ultraviolet (UV) is a form of electromagnetic radiation with wavelength from 10 nm to 400 nm, shorter than that of visible light but longer than X-rays. UV radiation is present in sunlight, and constitutes about 10% of the total electromagnetic radiation output from the Sun. It is also produced by electric arcs and specialized lights, such as mercury-vapor lamps, tanning lamps, and black lights. Although long-wavelength ultraviolet is not considered an ionizing radiation because its photons lack the energy to ionize atoms, it can cause chemical reactions and causes many substances to glow or fluoresce. Consequently, the chemical and biological effects of UV are greater than simple heating effects, and many practical applications of UV radiation derive from its interactions with organic molecules.

At sufficiently high flux levels, various bands of electromagnetic radiation have been found to cause deleterious health effects in people. Electromagnetic radiation can be classified into two types: ionizing radiation and non-ionizing radiation, based on the capability of a single photon with more than 10 eV energy to ionize oxygen or break chemical bonds. Extreme ultraviolet and higher frequencies, such as X-rays or gamma rays are ionizing, and these pose their own special hazards: see radiation and radiation poisoning. The last quarter of the twentieth century saw a dramatic increase in the number of devices emitting non-ionizing radiation in all segments of society, which resulted in an elevation of health concerns by researchers and clinicians, and an associated interest in government regulation for safety purposes. By far the most common health hazard of radiation is sunburn, which causes between approximately 100,000 and 1 million new skin cancers annually in the United States.

Radio wave Type of electromagnetic radiation

Radio waves are a type of electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum longer than infrared light. Radio waves have frequencies as high as 300 gigahertz (GHz) to as low as 30 hertz (Hz). At 300 GHz, the corresponding wavelength is 1 mm, and at 30 Hz is 10,000 km. The wavelength of a radio wave can be anywhere from shorter than a grain of rice to longer than the diameter of the Earth. Like all other electromagnetic waves, radio waves travel at the speed of light in vacuum. They are generated by electric charges undergoing acceleration, such as time varying electric currents. Naturally occurring radio waves are emitted by lightning and astronomical objects.

Spectral line optical phenomenon

A spectral line is a dark or bright line in an otherwise uniform and continuous spectrum, resulting from emission or absorption of light in a narrow frequency range, compared with the nearby frequencies. Spectral lines are often used to identify atoms and molecules. These "fingerprints" can be compared to the previously collected "fingerprints" of atoms and molecules, and are thus used to identify the atomic and molecular components of stars and planets, which would otherwise be impossible.

Thermal radiation electromagnetic radiation generated by the thermal motion of charged particles in matter

Thermal radiation is electromagnetic radiation generated by the thermal motion of particles in matter. All matter with a temperature greater than absolute zero emits thermal radiation. Particle motion results in charge-acceleration or dipole oscillation which produces electromagnetic radiation.

Ionizing radiation Radiation that carries enough light energy to liberate electrons from atoms or molecules

Ionizing radiation is radiation, traveling as a particle or electromagnetic wave, that carries sufficient energy to detach electrons from atoms or molecules, thereby ionizing an atom or a molecule. Ionizing radiation is made up of energetic subatomic particles, ions or atoms moving at high speeds, and electromagnetic waves on the high-energy end of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Transparency and translucency property of an object or substance to transmit light with minimal scattering

In the field of optics, transparency is the physical property of allowing light to pass through the material without appreciable scattering of light. On a macroscopic scale, the photons can be said to follow Snell's Law. Translucency allows light to pass through, but does not necessarily follow Snell's law; the photons can be scattered at either of the two interfaces, or internally, where there is a change in index of refraction. In other words, a translucent material is made up of components with different indices of refraction. A transparent material is made up of components with a uniform index of refraction. Transparent materials appear clear, with the overall appearance of one color, or any combination leading up to a brilliant spectrum of every color. The opposite property of translucency is opacity.

Absorption spectroscopy spectroscopic techniques that measure the absorption of radiation

Absorption spectroscopy refers to spectroscopic techniques that measure the absorption of radiation, as a function of frequency or wavelength, due to its interaction with a sample. The sample absorbs energy, i.e., photons, from the radiating field. The intensity of the absorption varies as a function of frequency, and this variation is the absorption spectrum. Absorption spectroscopy is performed across the electromagnetic spectrum.

Photobiology is the scientific study of the beneficial and harmful interactions of light in living organisms. The field includes the study of photophysics, photochemistry, photosynthesis, photomorphogenesis, visual processing, circadian rhythms, photomovement, bioluminescence, and ultraviolet radiation effects.

Absorption band

According to quantum mechanics, atoms and molecules can only hold certain defined quantities of energy, or exist in specific states. When such quanta of electromagnetic radiation are emitted or absorbed by an atom or molecule, energy of the radiation changes the state of the atom or molecule from an initial state to a final state. An absorption band is a range of wavelengths, frequencies or energies in the electromagnetic spectrum which are characteristic of a particular transition from initial to final state in a substance.

Dielectric heating Heating using radio waves

Dielectric heating, also known as electronic heating, radio frequency heating, and high-frequency heating, is the process in which a radio frequency (RF) alternating electric field, or radio wave or microwave electromagnetic radiation heats a dielectric material. At higher frequencies, this heating is caused by molecular dipole rotation within the dielectric.

Extreme ultraviolet ultraviolet light with a wavelength of 10–121nm

Extreme ultraviolet radiation or high-energy ultraviolet radiation is electromagnetic radiation in the part of the electromagnetic spectrum spanning wavelengths from 124 nm down to 10 nm, and therefore having photons with energies from 10 eV up to 124 eV. EUV is naturally generated by the solar corona and artificially by plasma and synchrotron light sources. Since UVC extends to 100 nm, there is some overlap in the terms.

Lyman continuum photons

Lyman continuum photons, shortened to Ly continuum photons or Lyc photon, are the photons emitted from stars at photon energies above the Lyman limit. Hydrogen is ionized by absorbing LyC. Working from Victor Schumann's discovery of ultraviolet light, from 1906 to 1914, Theodore Lyman observed that atomic hydrogen absorbs light only at specific frequencies and the Lyman series is thus named after him. All the wavelengths in the Lyman series are in the ultraviolet band. This quantized absorption behavior occurs only up to an energy limit, known as the ionization energy. In the case of neutral atomic hydrogen, the minimum ionization energy is equal to the Lyman limit, where the photon has enough energy to completely ionize the atom, resulting in a free proton and a free electron. Above this energy, all wavelengths of light may be absorbed. This forms a continuum in the energy spectrum; the spectrum is continuous rather than composed of many discrete lines, which are seen at lower energies.

Photoelectrochemical processes are processes in photoelectrochemistry; they usually involve transforming light into other forms of energy. These processes apply to photochemistry, optically pumped lasers, sensitized solar cells, luminescence, and photochromism.

Optical radiation is part of the electromagnetic spectrum. It is subdivided into ultraviolet radiation (UV), the spectrum of light visible for man (VIS) and infrared radiation (IR). It ranges between wavelengths of 100 nm to 1 mm. Electromagnetic waves in this range obey the laws of optics – they can be focused and refracted with lenses, for example.


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