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Can exposure to radiation cause leukemia?


Updated March 18, 2011

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Question: Can exposure to radiation cause leukemia?

Yes, it can -- but it depends on the type of radiation, and how extensively you were exposed to it. Each day, our bodies are exposed to many different sources of radiation. The rays of the sun, medical diagnostic equipment such as X-rays, as well as microwaves, cell phones, and even radio waves are all sources of radiation. Some types of radiation are known to cause cancer, while others are not.

There are two main types of radiation: non-ionizing and ionizing radiation. Non-ionizing radiation is weak and is unable to cause cell damage that could lead to cancer. Radiation emitted from your cell phone and computer screens is an example of non-ionizing radiation. This type of radiation is not known to be harmful to your health.

Ionizing radiation, on the other hand, has much more energy. In fact, it has enough energy to break certain chemical bonds, remove electrons from atoms, and damage DNA in our cells that can lead to cancer. All cells in our bodies can be injured by exposure to this type of radiation. Sources of ionizing radiation might include hospital x-rays, tobacco products, decomposition of radioactive materials in rock and soil, or more catastrophic cases such as nuclear accidents like the one at Chernobyl nuclear power plant, or atomic bombs. This type of radiation is known to cause cancer.

Leukemia is one of the most common type of cancer that develops after exposure to radiation and is usually diagnosed within 2 to 5 years. Other types of cancer, such as myeloma, may take as long as 15 years to develop.

Ionizing radiation was found to be carcinogenic (or cancer causing) only a few years after X-rays were discovered. Early scientists began keeping track of illness among radiation workers and noticed an obvious link between radiation exposure and cancer. More recently, the populations of people exposed to radiation during the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, uranium miners, and people who were treated for medical conditions using radiotherapy have been studied to confirm the connection.

While populations such as these that are exposed to high levels of radiation over a relatively short period of time are easy to track and study, scientists know very little about the risk to people who are exposed to constant low levels of radiation. All of us are subjected to a certain amount of radiation every day, but we do not all get cancer. Researchers do not know how much is too much radiation and which levels are considered “safe” amounts of exposure.


Djomina, E. and Barilyak, I. "Medical and Genetic Consequences of Radiation Catastrophes" Cytology and Genetics 2010. (44)186-193.

Environmental Protection Agency. "Radiation Protection" http://www.epa.gov/rpdweb00/understand/health_effects.html#riskofcancer Accessed March 14, 2011.

World Health Organization. (2006) "Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident and Special Health Care Programmes" http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2006/9241594179_eng.pdf Accessed March 14, 2011.

Yarbro, J. Carcinogenesis. In Yarbro, C., Frogge, M., Goodman, M. and Groenwald, S. eds (2000). Cancer Nursing: Principles and Practice 5th ed Jones and Bartlett: Sudbury: MA (pp. 48-59).

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