Research shows that radiation exposure damages the human body in a way that resembles accelerated aging. With increasing exposure, radiation causes more damage to our cells. Although radiation exposure varies from person to person, everyone is virtually exposed to radiation from the sun.

UV radiation is known for its damaging effects on the skin, which is why sunscreen is so important. Individuals can also be exposed to radiation because of their line of work (e.g., radiologists, x-ray technicians, or nuclear power plant workers). Radiation exposure due to occupational hazards is associated with a higher risk of developing certain cancers.

We’ve also seen the devastating effects of radiation exposure in Japan. For instance, atomic bomb survivors have developed leukemia and breast cancer.

And as recent as 2011, after an earthquake in Fukushima, Japan damaged a nuclear power plant, experts found that the accident resulted in the release of radioactive particles (i.e., radionuclides) into the atmosphere. The airborne radionuclides eventually deposited into the seas. Within a few months, the health effects of exposure to radioactive particles became notable in wildlife — particularly, seals in the Arctic.

The seals exhibited physical symptoms such as skin lesions and weakness. A group of American sailors on the USS Regan became sick after engaging in snowball fights (The snow was blown off the coast of Fukushima and contained radioactive particles). Despite the health problems seen in humans and animals, experts have been hesitant to tie the Fukushima accident to these illnesses. Now a few years after the event, more US sailors and Marines who were aboard the USS Regan have developed various forms of cancer, such as leukemia and testicular cancer.

The radiation accident at Fukushima may seem miles away to millions of people living in other parts of the world. However, radiation emergencies can happen on a local and global scale, with deleterious health consequences to humans.

While the threat of a Fukushima-like nuclear plume enveloping your community may not seem likely, you are still exposed to radiation when you get an x-ray and every time you go outdoors. To help reduce your lifetime exposure to radiation here are a few steps you can take:

Speak up: Ask your health care provider if an x-ray is necessary. If it is, inquire about your x-ray exposure. Ask about the availability of machines that reduce your x-ray exposure.

Use Sunscreen Year-Round: Don’t forget to put on a skin protectant to reduce your exposure to UV light. In the summer months, take the necessary precautions to avoid getting sunburned or sun blisters. Blisters increase your risk for developing melanoma — a deadly skin cancer. Use an SPF with the UV blocking strength of 15 or more. Apply sunscreen about an hour before leaving your home. Carry an SPF with you so that you can reapply it throughout your day, preferably every 2 to 3 hours.

Find a Shady Spot: While the sun is a great source of vitamin D, limit your sun exposure because UV light damages the skin. Prolonged exposure over time leads to noticeable skin changes like discoloration and fine lines. In time, these skin changes can lead to cancer. UV light exposure is the strongest between late mornings and early afternoon. If you can avoid it, stay indoors during these peak hours of UV light. Find a shady place to sit or walk.

Avoid Tanning Beds: Tanning salons offer the promise of sun-kissed skin for a beach-ready look, even in the winter months. However, exposure to UV light at tanning spas can pose significant health risks. Both ultraviolet A (UVA) and B (UVB) rays make up UV light. Data show that UVB rays are highly carcinogenic. Tanning salons use UVA rays that were thought to be safe. However, UVA light can penetrate deep into skin layers and has been linked to an increase in skin cancer risk.

Radiation exposure from your work, outside activities, or routine health visits accumulate over time putting you at risk for cancers like leukemia, lymphoma, thyroid cancer, and skin cancer. So protect your skin by following these tips to reduce your radiation exposure.

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