What is Non-Ionizing Radiation?

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  • Written By: T. Broderick
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 24 September 2016
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Non-ionizing radiation is a category of radiation that does not have enough energy to ionize molecules or atoms. This inability is due to the low frequency and high wavelength of radiation waves. Radio waves, infrared, microwave, visible light and near ultraviolet are the only forms of this type of radiation. Though significantly less harmful that ionizing radiation, non-ionizing radiation can cause harm to living organisms such as human beings. Protecting oneself and others is not difficult.

All forms of electromagnetic radiation are photons that act like waves when traveling through space. When these photons come into contact with atoms, the atoms become more energetic by absorbing the photons. If the atoms gain enough energy, they release some electrons, ionizing the atoms. Though non-ionizing radiation transfers energy to recipient atoms, ionization never occurs.

In order of increasing energy, radio waves, microwaves, infrared radiation, visible light and near ultraviolet are the only forms of non-ionizing radiation. These forms of radiation are ubiquitous in the universe and are produced by many man-made sources such as radio broadcast towers, microwave ovens and light bulbs. The earth's atmosphere filters the majority of radiation from cosmic sources.


Non-ionizing radiation is much less harmful to living organisms than ionizing radiation. The breaking of molecular bonds produced by ionizing radiation can cause damage to DNA, leading to diseases such as cancer. Gamma radiation, the most powerful type of ionizing radiation, is released in high quantities during events such the detonation of a nuclear weapon. Though exposure to non-ionizing radiation is relatively much safer, side effects from short-term exposure can still cause health problems.

The physical effects caused by radio waves produced by cell phones or Wi-Fi antennas are negligible. Evens so, visible light, especially light produced by lasers, can cause corneal burn and retinal damage. This damage occurs due to the intensity of the light; it can cause permanent damage even after a short exposure. More powerful lasers, like those used in laboratory experiments, can quickly produce skin burns or other serious injuries.

As laser light is the only potentially harmful form of non-ionizing radiation, one needs to only follow a few simple rules to protect oneself and others. For example, one should responsibly use commercial laser pointers. One should never give a laser pointer to a child. If one works in a laboratory setting, following laboratory safety procedures and wearing protective eyewear will ensure that all experiments are conducted safely.


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Post 4

@SkyWhisperer - Well according to this article radio waves are at the bottom of the list for energy potency, so how can they give you cancer?

I’m with you. Radiation from the sun or from concentrated devices like laser pointers is potentially more dangerous. I listen to the radio every night when I go to sleep, with the headphones plugged into my ears.

I’m certainly not practicing any RF radiation safety but I’m still healthy. I realize that’s anecdotal evidence but it’s as good as what’s trotted out about the dangers of cell phone radiation.

Post 3

@nony - Every now and then an article will appear claiming that cell phones can give you cancer. This urban legend gets recycled over and over again.

With each new cycle they claim that they finally have scientific proof that it can do that, and encourage people to avoid the RF radiation that is emitted from cell phones by not holding these phones close to your ears.

I think all such evidence is anecdotal at best. Personally I think that UV radiation from the sun is potentially more damaging to your health than what you get from your cell phone.

Post 2

@miriam98 - Actually, I think that’s an urban legend. There’s no proof of that. But if you want bona fide scientific measurements, I suppose that you could buy a microwave radiation detector and put it in front of the microwave. See what kind of readings you get.

I am not saying that it’s a good idea in either case to stand in front of it. It’s possible that if there is a leak around the door that some radiation will escape. But I certainly don’t believe that it will give you cancer. It will just dissipate into the atmosphere.

Post 1

I’ve been told that you should never stand in front of a microwave oven when it was cooking. Supposedly this could harm your health. People claim that you can get cancer from the radiation exposure to a microwave oven. Further they discourage pregnant women from standing in front of the microwave too. Supposedly it will harm the baby.

Of course it begs the question - if it harms your health what is it doing to the stuff that you’re cooking? At any rate I try to stand away from the microwave oven when I’m cooking stuff. I don’t know if it’s harmful or not. According to this article it’s not the most harmful kind of radiation.

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