The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency explains that beta particles are used in the medical field for diagnosis, imaging and treatment of various conditions. Radiation is the release of energy particles and rays from atoms. There are several forms of radiation, with beta radiation being a fast process that penetrates human skin to break chemical bonds and destroy certain living cells. Although effective for use in some medical treatment, such as for cancer and in pharmacological studies, significant effects can occur from exposure to beta radiation.
The Washington State Department of Health notes that beta radiation exposure can have delayed health effects on the body. Any amount of radiation exposure may lead to health conditions such as cancer or reproductive cell damage. Since effects from beta radiation exposure are not immediate and there is no way to determine if the exposure resulted in adverse effects, health problems can arise months to years afterward. The EPA further explains that delayed effects occur from tissue damage by beta emission and that more exposure to beta radiation increases the risk of cancer.
Radiation sickness occurs as a result of large doses of radiation over a short time frame. The Mayo Clinic explains that beta particles can cause illness through exposure to high-dose radiation sources such as detonated radioactive devices and explosives or nuclear industry leakages. X-ray machines typically use low doses pf radiation and do not commonly cause radiation sickness. Signs of acute beta radiation sickness include nausea, vomiting and dizziness. Sickness can occur within minutes to hours from high-dose exposure.
Direct exposure to beta particles through inhalation or ingestion is highly hazardous. The EPA states that damage on a molecular level occurs from direct exposure to radiation, and this causes changes in cell functioning. This is especially significant for women exposed to radiation during pregnancy, as the fetus is susceptible to cellular mutation and damage. Due to the vulnerability of the body while pregnant, special care to protect a patient from beta radiation during medical exams using an X-ray machine is important, even though X-ray machines use low doses of radiation, notes the FDA.
Direct exposure from beta radiation can also cause severe burns on the skin, hair loss and weakness. The Washington State Department of Health also notes that weakened immune system and nervous system damage occurs from delayed beta radiation effects. Iodine-131, which is used to treat thyroid conditions, is a beta emitter that is of significant concern as well, due to also being a source of thyroid nodule and cancer development. Ongoing studies continue to explore the effects associated with Iodine-131 on thyroid growth.