Making Sense of Radiation

A guide to radiation and its health effects.
The different kinds of radiation, their impact on health, and why some claims in news, commentary and advertising are wrong.

Published: 6 October 2008
All our guides are date stamped and reflect the scientific findings and knowledge available at the time of publication.

Download Making Sense of Radiation PDF

Media reports often quote members of lobby groups or individual scientists who discuss unverified work and do not represent the consensus view. An implied 50:50 split on findings is perpetuated because TV and press coverage feel the need to be ‘balanced’ and therefore give equal time and credence to opposing views, implying that the evidence is strong on both sides.

Prof Averil Macdonald


Did you Know?

Pylons and EMFs have not been established as a cause of childhood leukaemia. Laboratory trials using animal models and other tests have found no biological mechanism to explain how EMF exposure from power lines could cause cancer.


The booklet has been produced with the kind assistance of the British Institute of Radiology, the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the support of the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland Section of IEEE.

Making Sense of Radiation partner logos: BIR, IETm IPEM, IME, IEEE UK and Ireland


Public discussion about radiation is a frustrating mixture of truths, halftruths and conjectures. As a result, some people are being made to worry unnecessarily about electric fields from pylons and radiation from mobile phones and computers. Discussion about nuclear power often confuses radioactive materials and radiation. There are frequent references in newspapers and on websites to ‘electrosmog’ polluting us, causing illnesses and even hanging around in our bodies. Proposed EU regulations affecting MRI have added to confusion about the kinds of radiation used in medical scans and their associated risks. The fact that research is carried out on a precautionary basis to establish whether risks exist has been presented by some commentators as evidence of danger, and a growing range of ‘protective’ products make implausible claims about how electromagnetic radiation behaves. So how do we make sense of all that?

What is the problem this guide is addressing?

We drafted in scientists working in the field of radiation – including medical physicists, radiologists, epidemiologists, nuclear physicists, pathologists, hospital doctors, psychologists and electrical and mechanical engineers – to explain the different kinds of radiation, their impact on health, and why some claims in news, commentary and advertising are wrong.

Their main concern is that people can’t tell which claims are well-founded. The consequences are far reaching; people sometimes don’t consider the real risks of exposure to radiation, for example through non-urgent medical procedures such as ‘MOT’ body scans. Parents, teachers, councillors and others have become incredibly anxious about exposure to non-ionising forms of radiation, and some schools have now removed Wi-Fi from the classroom. Such anxiety helps no-one but sellers of anti-radiation products. What’s more, the scientists say, policy and public discussion can’t advance without a clearer picture of the science involved. This briefing doesn’t cover everything. But we hope it equips people with tools and questions that deliver a clearer picture of what radiation is, what it does and what it can’t do.


Over 500 copies have been given out and more than 15,000 downloaded in the first year alone. A copy was sent to MPs on the ministerial teams and select committees of the DUIS, the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department of Health. It was also sent to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee. 100 were given out at the Association for Science Education annual conference.

We also received many grateful calls from journalists and local authorities trying to deal with misconceptions around issues such as Wi-Fi in their communities.

The launch of Making Sense of Radiation received national coverage in the Daily Mail, the Guardian and TalkSport radio. Prof. Elaine Fox was interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and even Austrian National Radio picked up the guide.