Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Can you feel alpha radiation?

  1. Jun 1, 2012 #1
    Say I were to pick up a big chunk of Americium-241. Could I just hold it in my hand or would it be painful? Not that I'm planning on doing it, just out of curiosity.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 1, 2012 #2


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    One might feel warmth from the heat generated by the alpha activity, and possibly some tingling from the radiation. One would experience only alpha emitted from the surface adjacent to the hand, and they would be absorbed mostly by the skin.

    http://www.nndc.bnl.gov/chart/reCenter.jsp?z=95&n=146 (use zoom 1)

    http://www.nndc.bnl.gov/chart/getdecayscheme.jsp?nucleus=237NP&dsid=241am a decay&unc=nds

    About 84% of alphas are emitted with an energy of 5.486 MeV and another 13% have an energy of 5.443 MeV.
  4. Jun 1, 2012 #3
    Nothing more than tingling? So theoretically, you could hold it in your hand and if you just washed your hands thoroughly enough, you'd be none the worse off?
  5. Jun 1, 2012 #4


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Yes. I have done it, but I do not recommend it. I don't want to be held responsible if someone gets hurt doing this.

    Most of the time when our people work with alpha particles they are wearing breathing protection to prevent internal intake as well as partial anti-contamination clothing. Also, sometimes the work is done in a glove bag if there is a large amount.

    The primary hazard with alpha particles is if they are taken in internally. That is where they will do the most damage.

    Google Alexander V. Litvinenko and Po-210. This unfortunate soul ingested Po-210 a known strong alpha emitter (I am unable to post links until I reach 10 posts). It was very big news at one time. Po-210 is used frequently in static eliminators if my memory serves me.
    Last edited: Jun 1, 2012
  6. Jun 1, 2012 #5


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    I should clarify. I did not feel a 'tingling.' I did feel warmth from the decay or alphas depositing their energy in my skin.

    Additionally, handling any radioactive material should be done with care. Alphas are considered not a large concern by many who work with radioactive material daily, but they can cause serious harm to you.

    Just yesterday photos of a radiographer's hand came into my office from an overexposure. He will likely lose most of the digits on his hands. This is a person who has some training with handling radioactive materials and knows the risks. Admittedly the damage to his hands was not caused by alpha particles.
  7. Jun 1, 2012 #6


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    There probably would be gamma radiation from the 3% of Am-241 with lower energy alphas, as well as decay products.

    When handling Am-241 and other similar materials, one normally uses gloves and typically one works remotely or with the sample shielded in a glove box.

    The transuranics are heavy metals so it's best not to handle with direct contact to the skin.
  8. Jun 15, 2012 #7
    I used to have a boss that said he could feel high energy gamma emitters in his fingers...not sure if a double blind study has been done on this or not.
  9. Jun 17, 2012 #8
    Cobalt60 is 2.4 MeV per decay, so 1 watt of Co60 = 1 Curie of Co60. Absorption coefficient of Co60 gammas in water is about 0.03 cm2 per gram, so about the heating of fingers is about 1/30 of 1 watt, or 30 mW.
  10. Jun 17, 2012 #9


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Ah. I was about to comment. I would be astonished if one felt anything like tingling. One should just feel warmth. (But that is just an educated expectation.)
  11. Jun 18, 2012 #10
    Um....really? First, the gamma decay energies for cobalt-60 are 1.17 and 1.33, which totals 2.5 MeV per decay (I'll ignore the other braches since they are so rare, as well as the beta energy). Second, 2.5 MeV is about 4 x 10-13 J, and 1 curie is 3.7 x 1010 dps, which makes 1 Curie about 148 milliwatts. It takes about 6.76 curies to produce 1 watt of energy. I have no idea where you came up with 1 watt = 1 curie.
  12. Jun 18, 2012 #11
    My bad. Thanks.
  13. Jul 26, 2012 #12
    If an alpha source is physically hot from it's own radioactivity, then you need to drop it and run. Any radioactive source that self heats is a source to run away from. Fortunately, you don't have to run far from alpha... gamma travels far further, although the inverse square law helps, air isn't a good shield for gamma.
    I've had dealings with a single 4000 Ci cobalt 60 source that was described to me as roughly equivalent to a 60 watt lamp for heat. Two weeks of storage in a 2 tonne shielded pig (mostly lead) was enough to make the pig almost too warm to handle.
    I've read that cats can detect strong xray and gamma fields by smelling the ozone created by ionisation of air in their nasal cavity. I can easily smell the ozone in a big gamma irradiator's canister when it is exposed long enough to kill all living cells in it. If I smelt that while working around a gamma source, I'd run and ask questions later. Immediate action might be your only chance of survival. If you could smell ozone, the gamma field would be enough to jelly your brains in a minute, so even a few seconds head start for bailing out could save your life. Never expose yourself to any radiation source unless you have training, shielding, handling rods, test instruments and a safety buddy. With two people, one doing the work, the other watching the instruments and cross checking your work, you have a much better chance of avoiding a nasty injury.
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Similar Discussions: Can you feel alpha radiation?
  1. Alpha Gloveboxes (Replies: 4)

  2. Can radiation be seen (Replies: 53)