Radiation: Killer or Healer
By Rayni Joan

Since the high-profile radiation poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in November 2006, the public has been clamoring for more information about radiation. We know that radiation is a treatment for certain forms of cancer. So, is radiation a killer or healer? When does radiation become a deadly toxin? When is it helpful?

The former Russian spy Litvinenko died of poisoning from a rare radioactive element, polonium-210, usually confined to its place of manufacture in a secure nuclear facility. Polonium-210 is deadly when it enters the body, either ingested or inhaled. In nuclear facilities, workers must wear special radiation-proof gear and pass through decontamination immediately after any inkling of direct exposure to polonium-210 or similarly toxic elements like plutonium or americium. Uranium-238 is a highly toxic radioactive element which at one time was considered to be nuclear waste but now is classified as a "resource material." The United States' military use of DU (depleted uranium, the name for material that is no longer very radioactive but is still very toxic) in war materials is now thought to have had deadly consequences in Europe and the Middle East where birth defects and leukemia have skyrocketed. Moreover, American soldiers with so-called Gulf War syndrome may be casualties of DU.
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Because radiation is life-threatening, it must be used with the greatest of care. The last photos of the 43- year-old formerly healthy ex-KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko showing him just before his death, frail and hairless, may be a lesson in how dangerous these radioactive substances actually are.

But while radiation is a known killer, it can also heal. There are two main types of radiation treatment that are used to heal various ailments: external and internal radiation. According to the National Cancer Institute, radiation therapy focuses x-rays, electron beams, or cobalt-60 gamma rays specifically at tumors to kill or disable cancer cells. While there is risk of damaging normal cells, doctors insist normal cells, unlike cancer cells, can recover. During internal radiation treatment, called brachytherapy, a surgeon places a sealed radioactive implant directly into a tumor to kill cancer cells.
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