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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 16: Harm from Toxic Chemicals > Radiation

Radiation is an invisible form of energy. Some radiation, such as sunlight, is good for us. But some radiation, from heavy metals such as uranium, causes radiation poisoning, cancers, skin diseases, and birth defects. Radioactive materials poison the land and water for many generations.

Most radioactive materials are produced by the military and used for making war. Radiation exposure is most common where weapons are made, tested, and used, such as military bases and war zones. Radioactive materials used by the military are sometimes recycled and show up in other metal products, causing harm to people who have no way to know they are exposed.

Radioactive metals are also used in some products such as electronics, causing harm to workers exposed to them. People who work at nuclear power plants, uranium mines, or nuclear dumping sites are also at serious risk for radiation exposure. (See "Mining and sickness among the Dineh")

Radiation sickness

Radiation can cause cancer of the lungs, thyroid, and blood, as well as diseases that affect the bones, muscles, nervous system, stomach, and digestive system.

Most exposure to harmful radiation occurs in small amounts over a long time, causing health problems to develop slowly. Uranium miners, for example, may work for many years with no signs of illness. Years later, they can develop lung cancer and other illnesses related to their work with radioactive materials (see “Mining and sickness among the Dineh”).

Soldiers who handle radioactive missile shells (depleted uranium shells) and people in war zones where the shells are left among the rubble of destruction are also developing radiation sickness

Nuclear accidents or explosions can cause death right away or within several weeks. People who survive 6 weeks after an explosion may recover for a while, but serious illness can return years later.

Radiation can pass to nursing infants through breast milk. Radiation sickness cannot be passed from person to person, but the damage it causes can pass down from parents to children and grandchildren, as birth defects, cancers, and other health problems.


Early signs of radiation sickness include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fatigue. These signs may be followed by:

  • hair loss
  • burning feeling in the body
  • shortness of breath
  • swelling of the mouth and throat
  • worsening of tooth or gum disease
  • dry cough
  • pain in the heart
  • rapid heartbeat
  • permanent skin darkening
  • bleeding spots under the skin
  • pale or transparent skin, gums, and fingernails (anemia)
  • death
A woman speaks as she stands beside an older woman.
Grandmother did not know what radiation was until it killed Grandfather.
Organizing against radiation poisoning

Asian Rare Earth Company, owned partly by Mitsubishi Corporation of Japan, ran a factory for 10 years in the village of Bukit Merah, Malaysia, to produce a rare metal that was used to make the red colors in television screens.

The factory dumped radioactive waste in the village and many villagers suffered cancers and birth defects caused by the radiation. The factory had not fenced off the waste site, posted any warning signs, or taken any other measures to reduce harm to the villagers.

Community residents brought a lawsuit against the company to shut down the factory. Along with the lawsuit, they held many public protests that were widely reported on local radio and television. After 7 years, a Malaysian court ordered Asian Rare Earth to close its plant in Bukit Merah and remove all its radioactive waste and toxic chemicals.

By using public protest, media, and lawsuits, the villagers prevented further health problems by forcing the factory to shut down.

As a man looks down from a building in surprise, people gather outside a factory fence carrying signs reading, "Shut it down," "Factory causes cancer," "No radiation," "Take it away," "Our health matters," and "Solidarity."