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Effects of Radiation

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Credit: Eric Erbe
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:E_coli_at_10000x,_original.jpg
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

The headline reads “Customers Hospitalized After Eating Contaminated Hamburger”. A major unwanted contaminant in meat is the bacteria E. coli. Normally, this microorganism does not create any problems for humans; in fact, we find E. coli in our intestinal tract. But there are strains that can cause serious illness. These strains are often found in undercooked and raw foods.

News You Can Use

  • Over 76 million people in the U.S become ill after eating contaminated food that has not been cooked sufficiently to kill all the bacteria. In addition to food contamination, large amounts of raw food spoil before they can be used. The health challenges and food loss lead to higher medical expenses and extra costs for the damaged food.
  • Food treated with exposure to nuclear radiation has been shown to be safer in terms of bacterial contamination and longer-lasting in terms of spoilage. The radioactive material employed (usually an isotope of cobalt) emits radiation that will disrupt the DNA of the bacteria, killing the microorganism so that it cannot reproduce. This treatment is also extremely effective in destroying insects and parasites. Viruses are much smaller and very resistant to irradiation.
  • Credit: U.S. Department of agriculture
    Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/usdagov/6083431776/
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0

    These South Carolina peaches are irradiated before being exported to Mexico [Figure2]


  • This treatment is not yet enjoying wide-spread use in the United States. There are a number of concerns about using these foods. Many people fear exposure to radioactivity, even though the food does not come in direct contact with the radioisotope – just the emitted radiation interacts with the food molecules. Others feel the quality and safety of the final product are compromised. They believe that irradiation is expensive and does not deal with the real problems of the food system.
  • Watch a video at the link below to learn more about food irradiation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fKcD3ejDze4

Show What You Know

Learn more about radiation and its effects on cells at the links below. Then answer the following questions.

  1. What type of radiation is produced by radioactive decay?
  2. What is the purpose of food irradiation?
  3. What is the major isotope used in food irradiation?
  4. Why is the destruction of living food cells advantageous?
  5. What are two objections to treating food with radiation?

Image Attributions

  1. [1]^ Credit: Eric Erbe; Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:E_coli_at_10000x,_original.jpg; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  2. [2]^ Credit: U.S. Department of agriculture; Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/usdagov/6083431776/; License: CC BY-NC 3.0


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