No form of energy has been more feared or creatively explored in science fiction (e.g. Godzilla) as radiation, yet the layman tends to know little about the actual properties and effects of radiation. The word “radiation” is commonly associated with things like Chernobyl, mutation and cancer. However, most people only know that radiation is “bad” while not knowing exactly how and why it is dangerous. Radiation is essentially high-frequency light which can deliver a large dose of energy (just like how microwaves cook food and sunlight can burn paper when focussed through a magnifying glass). When this high-dose of energy passes through living organisms, it damages the DNA in cells, potentially causing irreparable damage. This can lead to mutation and disruption of cell division (which can lead to cancer) or cell death (which is why radiation is ironically used to kill cancer cells).
The more technical question is “how much” radiation is harmful. For example, how much more dangerous was the Chernobyl incident compared to an x-ray? Like many other things in science, radiation is measured using an internationally universal unit called the Sievert (Sv). The radiation received from standing next to the Chernobyl reactor core after meltdown was 50Sv, while a chest x-ray is 20μSv (1000μSv = 1mSv, 1000mSv = 1Sv). Therefore, the Chernobyl incident could be considered to be as strong as 2.5 million chest x-rays. Although there is great variation, it is considered that a dose of 400mSv can cause symptoms of radiation poisoning, while 4~8Sv of radiation will lead to certain death.
Fascinatingly, radiation is not an uncommon thing. Radiation is all around us, with an average person receiving about 10μSv of background radiation per day just by living on Earth. Ergo, two days of walking around gives you the same amount of radiation as a single chest x-ray. A CT scan gives out a significantly greater dose of radiation at about 7mSv (approximately 350 x-rays or a year’s worth of background radiation).
However, the Sievert is a unit that is difficult to understand. Thus, some scientists devised a clever, humorous equivalent unit called the banana equivalent dose (BED). Bananas contain a certain amount of radioactive isotopes (radioactive potassium), making them technically radioactive. A banana contains 0.1μSv of radiation. Ergo, a chest x-ray is the equivalent to eating 200 bananas, a CT scan is 70000 bananas, while the Chernobyl incident gave people nearby a dose of roughly 500 million bananas.
The banana equivalent dose is a rather useful (and hilarious) way of comparing the danger of radiation from different sources. The next time you go to hospital for an x-ray, just picture 200 bananas being shot through your chest.