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Saturday, April 9, 2011

Geiger Counter Numbers, How Bad is Bad?

Original Article

radiation-symbol-iconradioactive-symbol-icon
Given the recent events in Japan and the nuclear reactor damage and radiation entering the atmosphere there, the following information may help to understand the units of measurement being discussed, and how it may correlate to Geiger Counter readings such as those being displayed around the country on the Radiation Network.


Units of Measurement (Radiation)

1 rad = 0.01 gray (Gy)


1 rem = 0.01 sievert (Sv)
1 gray (Gy) = 100 rad

1 sievert (Sv) = 100 rem
Rad and Gray are ‘absorbed dose’ units.


Rem and Sievert are ‘equivalent dose’ units.

Why a Rem and a Sievert?

They relate to biological damage done to human tissue and factor the differences between types of radiation. A multiplication factor is used that represents the ‘effective’ biological damage of a given type of radiation. This is the main reason for these units – to factor the differences in damage that is caused from one type of radiation to the next.
Radiation Factor (QF Quality Factor)

(1) Beta

(1) Gamma

(1) X-ray

(10) Nuetron

(20) Alpha

For example, the list above shows that a ‘rad’ or ‘gray’ unit of ‘Alpha’ energy that is absorbed by soft human tissue does 20 times more damage than a ‘rad’ or ‘gray’ of Gamma, X-ray or Beta radiation.


Measuring Radiation with a Geiger Counter CPM

What is CPM (also the ‘number’ used on the Radiation Network )?

CPM (counts per minute) is a measure of radioactivity, a unit of measurement for a Geiger counter. Technically, “It is the number of atoms in a given quantity of radioactive material that are detected to have decayed in one minute.”
Most Geiger counters are calibrated to Cs137 (Cesium).
1,200 CPM on the meter (for Cs137) is about 1 mR/hr (milliRad per hour).

120 CPM on the meter (for Cs137) is about 1 uSv/hr (microSievert per hour).

How many CPM of radiation is bad?

Answer: It depends on how long you are exposed at any given level. The Radiation Network website, for example, uses a threshold warning level of 100 CPM, mainly because it is unusual to observe levels of 100 or higher without something more going on in the area than just background level.
Having said that, how could one figure out the ‘badness’ of a given level? How bad is bad? All we need to do is put in terms that makes sense.
First, we must understand a few radiation facts and numbers regarding dosage. There tend to be lots of conversions and it can be confusing, but by plodding through the math, you can determine a better idea and relationship of the Geiger counter numbers versus the risks to your health.

Radiation Dosage

Radiation dosage is a measure of the risk of biological harm that the tissues receive in the body.

The unit of absorbed radiation dose is the sievert (Sv). Since one sievert is a large quantity, radiation doses normally encountered are expressed in milliSievert (mSv) or microSievert (µSv) which are one-thousandth or one millionth of a sievert. For example, one chest X-ray will give about 0.2 mSv of radiation dose.
On average, our annual radiation exposure due to all natural sources is about 300 milliRem, which is equivalent to 3 milliSieverts (3 mSv). Adding man-made sources (medical procedures, and others) the average annual U.S. radiation dose is about 600 milliRem, which is equivalent to 6 milliSieverts (6 mSv).
Average annual human exposure to radiation (U.S.)

600 milliRem (mRem)

6 milliSievert (mSv)
Radiation dose for increase cancer risk of 1 in a 1,000

1,250 milliRem (mRem)

12.5 milliSievert (mSv)
Earliest onset of radiation sickness


75,000 milliRem (mRem)

750 milliSievert (mSv)
Onset of radiation poisoning

300,000 milliRem (mRem)

3,000 milliSievert (mSv)
Expected 50% death from radiation

400,000 milliRem (mRem)

4,000 milliSievert (mSv)



What do the Radiation Network CPM numbers mean with regards to health risk?

With the examples of radiation dose listed above, we can correlate how long it would take to experience those effects based on a hypothetical Geiger counter CPM number.
So, let’s use the number 100, since this is the threshold that the Radiation Network website has chosen. The Cs137 calibration factor listed above (120 CPM) was converted to obtain the proper factored results listed below (0.83x). Higher CPM numbers are also listed for relevancy.
Days compared with the avg. annual human exposure (U.S.)

207 (at 100 CPM)

42 (at 500 CPM)


14 (at 1,500 CPM)

2 (at 10,000 CPM)
Days to receive dose for increase cancer risk of 1 in a 1,000

432 (at 100 CPM)

86 (at 500 CPM)

28 (at 1,500 CPM)

4 (at 10,000 CPM)
Days for earliest onset of radiation sickness

25,937 (at 100 CPM)


5,187 (at 500 CPM)

1,729 (at 1,500 CPM)

259 (at 10,000 CPM)




Conclusion: Regarding the radioactive fallout from Japan reaching here to the U.S., the metered Geiger Counter CPM that we see on the Radiation Network can be compared to the equivalent ‘what-IF’ scenarios listed above. Not saying though that anything less would not be ‘bad’ for us, there are lots of theories out there regarding long-term effects of various types of radioactive ionized particles making it into the food chain, etc…




Interesting fact:

All food sources combined, expose a person to around 40 millirems per year on average.


Many foods are naturally radioactive, and bananas are particularly so, due to the radioactive potassium-40 they contain. The equivalent dose for 365 bananas (one per day for a year) is 3.6 millirems (36 μSv).
Other foods that have above-average levels are potatoes, kidney beans, nuts (especially brazil nuts), and sunflower seeds.




Ways to limit radiation exposure:

1. Time (limit exposure time)

2. Distance (intensity decreases sharply according to the inverse-square-law)


3. Shielding

(alpha: nearly anything… a sheet of paper will stop it)

(beta: wood, water, plastic-acrylic, aluminum)

(gamma: water, concrete, lead)




Disclaimer: Do not rely upon this information for life or health, it is only one person’s estimation based on a several hours research and punching calculator buttons. We have no affiliation with the Radiation Network, who may or may not agree with these numbers.



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