X-rays are a wonderful addition to the world of medicine; they let doctors peer inside a patient without any surgery at all. It's much easier and safer to look at a broken bone using X-rays than it is to open a patient up.
But X-rays can also be harmful. In the early days of X-ray science, a lot of doctors would expose patients and themselves to the beams for long periods of time. Eventually, doctors and patients started developing radiation sickness, and the medical community knew something was wrong.
The problem is that X-rays are a form of ionizing radiation. When normal light hits an atom, it can't change the atom in any significant way. But when an X-ray hits an atom, it can knock electrons off the atom to create an ion, an electrically-charged atom. Free electrons then collide with other atoms to create more ions.
An ion's electrical charge can lead to unnatural chemical reactions inside cells. Among other things, the charge can break DNA chains. A cell with a broken strand of DNA will either die or the DNA will develop a mutation. If a lot of cells die, the body can develop various diseases. If the DNA mutates, a cell may become cancerous, and this cancer may spread. If the mutation is in a sperm or an egg cell, it may lead to birth defects. Because of all these risks, doctors use X-rays sparingly today.
Even with these risks, X-ray scanning is still a safer option than surgery. X-ray machines are an invaluable tool in medicine, as well as an asset in security and scientific research. They are truly one of the most useful inventions of all time.
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