Radiation for Product Inspection – Why it’s Safer than You Think

Christy Draus, Eagle Product Inspection Marketing Manager

19 December 2016

Yikes! Radiation scary word, right? Most people think of three eyed fish and nuclear power plants when the word ‘radiation’ is brought up. It provokes various reactions in individuals which all too often are misunderstood. We’re right to be wary of radiation, but that doesn’t mean we should be worried about using x-ray or x-ray systems for product inspection. This article explores what radiation is, refutes some common myths about it and reveals some sizzling facts.

What is Radiation?

Radiation is energy emitted from a source. Like all forms of energy, radiation can be both useful and harmful to humans. For example, high levels of radiation can cause cancer as well as cure cancer.

Two main sources of radiation exist: natural and man-made. Natural radiation includes heat or light from the sun, radiation from the ground and gamma rays from radioactive elements. Man-made radiation includes microwaves from an oven and x-rays from an x-ray tube.

X-rays are a form of electromagnetic radiation. All types of electromagnetic radiation are part of a single continuum known as the electromagnetic spectrum. Ionizing radiation is radiation with enough energy to remove tightly bound electrons from the orbit of an atom, causing the atom to become charged or ionized. Not all electromagnetic radiation is ionizing. Only the high frequency portion of the electromagnetic spectrum is ionizing, which includes x-rays and gamma rays. Why is this important and why should you care? You’ll soon find out just how much ionized radiation we are exposed to in our day-to-day lives.

There’s No Escaping Radiation – it’s all around us!

Humans have been exposed to background radiation since the beginning of time and it’s all around us. Low levels of naturally-occurring radioactive material are in our environment, the food we eat, and in many consumer products. Natural sources of radiation account for approximately 82%² of the total radiation we receive. It’s impossible to eliminate radiation from our surrounding environment.

Did you know that bananas are slightly radioactive and eating one a day exposes you to ionizing radiation? Flying also increases levels of radiation. One flight from New York to London gives travellers about the same level of radiation as a chest x-ray. What’s more, frequent fliers absorb around 8% more radiation, compared to non-fliers¹. Don’t believe it? Read this white paper, ‘How Safe Is X-ray Inspection of Food?’ it shatters common misconceptions regarding x-ray food inspection and dispels a few myths as well.

Putting Radiation Quantities into Context

When radiation’s energy is deposited into our body’s tissues, we receive a dose of radiation. A Rem (Roentgen Equivalent Man) is a unit of effective absorbed dose of ionizing radiation in human tissue. Small doses are expressed in mRem (milliRem) or uRem (microRem) i.e. 1 Rem = 1000 mRem and 1 mRem = 1000 uRem.

Our average annual exposure to natural and man-made radiation is approximately 360 mRem/year. This far exceeds the radiation exposure received from a properly-installed and maintained x-ray inspection machine.

It’s often assumed that any dose of radiation, no matter how small, is a health risk. However, there’s no scientific evidence of any health risk at doses below 5000 mRem/year, which is the yearly dose allowed from occupational exposure to an x-ray food inspection system.

X-ray systems do expose users to radiation but they are built to protect people

X-ray inspection systems used in the food and pharmaceutical industries don’t contain any sources of live radiation, such as uranium, and are designed with highly-dense materials to protect users from the effects of radiation. Actually,  x-rays are electrically generated which means they can be turned on and off,  plus cabinet system enclosures exist where the x-ray generator is installed as a safeguard. What’s more, the radiation dose levels used for product or food inspection are extremely low.

The risk of being exposed to radiation can also be controlled through a series of protection principles:

  • Time – minimizing your time in a radiation field
  • Distance – maximizing your distance from a radiation source
  • Shielding – x-rays are absorbed when they pass through a material. The most efficient absorbers of x-rays are highly-dense materials, which is why x-ray systems are often made from stainless steel. Some x-ray generators are designed with copper incorporated into it as an additional containment for the x-rays released.

The use of x-ray equipment for product inspection began around the early 1900’s and is both highly-regulated and increasingly common. That being said, x-ray inspection machines should be regularly tested and certified to meet safety standards; standards such as the Ionizing Radiation Regulations 1999 and the American Standard 1020.40 CFR. These safety guidelines must be followed by trained operators to ensure a facility remains in compliance with regulatory standards.

Contrary to popular belief, modern x-ray systems provide a perfectly safe working environment for both the operators and the food product they inspect. They also help to detect hazardous contaminants that are missed by the human eye and strengthen quality assurance.

For more information on x-ray product inspection and its use in the food manufacturing industry read this white paper, ‘More Than Foreign body detection.’

¹ http://listverse.com/2014/05/28/10-lesser-known-things-involving-radiation/ 

² The ionizing radiation exposure to the public is taken from the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP Report No. 93), “Ionizing Radiation Exposure of the Population of the United States,” 1987.