So why is cobalt-60 dangerous? It's dangerous for the same reason that it's so useful in science and medicine. It's primary decay (with 99.9% occurrence) is to release 2 gamma rays, each with over 1 MeV of energy (electron volts, eV, are just another unit of energy, 1 eV is about 10^-19 joules, but just consider it energy.) So you've got this element releasing 2.5 MeV of energy per decay, with an extremely reliable frequency of that release. This means if you are a scientist hoping for a dependable, highly energetic gamma ray source, cobalt-60 can't be beat.
What's a gamma ray? It's just a name for an energetic photon of energy. You've heard of radio waves, micro waves, UV-rays, x-rays and here, gamma rays. They are all different forms of electro-magnetic waves -- a.k.a. light. But gamma rays have an ultra high frequency so they carry with them a lot of energy. They also are more dangerous to human tissue than other forms of radiation because they can pass through our bodies -- some radiation can't even penetrate our skin and are harmless to us unless we breath in their sources or consume them.
So what if they pass through us -- what happens? The energy a gamma ray is carrying will allow it to interact with the atoms of our tissue and cause them to 'ionize'. Without getting into more physics of that, this causes chemical bonds to break, can disrupt molecules like our dna or rna (causing birth defects), and other things that don't really help us out. Think about reaching into your car's engine and just slicing up and tearing some hoses and belts. At first you're just causing it to run poorly, but do enough damage and you'll destroy the engine. That's why people often get violently ill from some radiation exposure, but not lethally so.
Cobalt-60 isn't producing some frightening, unknown boogey man of radiation. Exposure to it isn't a death sentence, but prolonged exposure without any protection (something to slow down those gamma rays to keep them from getting into you), is not going to brighten your day. Just some education on the matter is all we need.
- University of California Los AngelesGraduate Student, 2010 - present
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