You may click on any of the types of radiation for more detail about its particular type of interaction with matter. The different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum have very different effects upon interaction with matter. Starting with low frequency radio waves, the human body is quite transparent. (You can listen to your portable radio inside your home since the waves pass freely through the walls of your house and even through the person beside you!) As you move upward through microwaves and infrared to visible light, you absorb more and more strongly. In the lower ultraviolet range, all the uv from the sun is absorbed in a thin outer layer of your skin. As you move further up into the x-ray region of the spectrum, you become transparent again, because most of the mechanisms for absorption are gone. You then absorb only a small fraction of the radiation, but that absorption involves the more violent ionization events. Each portion of the electromagnetic spectrum has quantum energies appropriate for the excitation of certain types of physical processes. The energy levels for all physical processes at the atomic and molecular levels are quantized, and if there are no available quantized energy levels with spacings which match the quantum energy of the incident radiation, then the material will be transparent to that radiation, and it will pass through.

Electromagnetic spectrum annotated with physiological effects

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Microwave Interactions

The quantum energy of microwave photons is in the range 0.00001 to 0.001 eV which is in the range of energies separating the quantum states of molecular rotation and torsion. The interaction of microwaves with matter other than metallic conductors will be to rotate molecules and produce heat as result of that molecular motion. Conductors will strongly absorb microwaves and any lower frequencies because they will cause electric currents which will heat the material. Most matter, including the human body, is largely transparent to microwaves. High intensity microwaves, as in a microwave oven where they pass back and forth through the food millions of times, will heat the material by producing molecular rotations and torsions. Since the quantum energies are a million times lower than those of x-rays, they cannot produce ionization and the characteristic types of radiation damage associated with ionizing radiation.

Interaction of radiation with matter

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Infrared Interactions

The quantum energy of infrared photons is in the range 0.001 to 1.7 eV which is in the range of energies separating the quantum states of molecular vibrations. Infrared is absorbed more strongly than microwaves, but less strongly than visible light. The result of infrared absorption is heating of the tissue since it increases molecular vibrational activity. Infrared radiation does penetrate the skin further than visible light and can thus be used for photographic imaging of subcutaneous blood vessels.

Interaction of radiation with matter

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Visible Light Interactions

The primary mechanism for the absorption of visible light photons is the elevation of electrons to higher energy levels. There are many available states, so visible light is absorbed strongly. With a strong light source, red light can be transmitted through the hand or a fold of skin, showing that the red end of the spectrum is not absorbed as strongly as the violet end.

While exposure to visible light causes heating, it does not cause ionization with its risks. You may be heated by the sun through a car windshield, but you will not be sunburned - that is an effect of the higher frequency uv part of sunlight which is blocked by the glass of the windshield.

Interaction of radiation with matter

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Ultraviolet Interactions


The near ultraviolet is absorbed very strongly in the surface layer of the skin by electron transitions. As you go to higher energies, the ionization energies for many molecules are reached and the more dangerous photoionization processes take place. Sunburn is primarily an effect of uv, and ionization produces the risk of skin cancer.

The ozone layer in the upper atmosphere is important for human health because it absorbs most of the harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun before it reaches the surface. The higher frequencies in the ultraviolet are ionizing radiation and can produce harmful physiological effects ranging from sunburn to skin cancer.

Interaction of radiation with matter

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Since the quantum energies of x-ray photons are much too high to be absorbed in electron transitions between states for most atoms, they can interact with an electron only by knocking it completely out of the atom. That is, all x-rays are classified as ionizing radiation. This can occur by giving all of the energy to an electron (photoionization) or by giving part of the energy to the photon and the remainder to a lower energy photon (Compton scattering). At sufficiently high energies, the x-ray photon can create an electron positron pair.

Interaction of radiation with matter

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