Our small and big screens are awash with superhero adventures, with both the Marvel and DC universes having a stranglehold on the film industry over the past decade or so.
Many of the superheroes that entertain us have gained their immense powers following exposure to certain materials. But, what would the actual impact of such exposure be on the human body? Join Kromek, creator of the pocket-sized Riid device that can subtly detect various radiological threats, as they find out…
The Hulk (aka Bruce Banner)
Bruce Banner lived up to the ‘hero’ status when he tried to save a man who was trapped in a Gamma radiation test facility. However, his efforts saw him take a direct blast from an experimental gamma bomb — a turning point in Banner’s life as it turned him into The Hulk and saw him grow huge and green, (originally grey), whenever he became angry.
You’d quickly die from radiation sickness, or be instantly incinerated, if you are caught in the path of a gamma bomb in real life, though. There would be little time for you to get angry — or feel any other emotion, for that matter!
This is due to gamma rays representing the highest energy form of light. They lie beyond violet on the electromagnetic spectrum with shorter wavelengths than ultraviolet rays and X-rays. One gamma ray offers at least 10,000 times more energy than a visible light ray. Gamma rays also knock electrons about in rapid fashion, with the charge particles then disrupting any chemical bond that they come into contact with.
Of course, in certain situations gamma rays are used in medical applications. Take the gamma knife for example, which is a medical device which aims gamma rays at a patient’s brain in order to kill tumours.
Captain America (aka Steve Rogers)
When Steve Rogers became Captain America following undergoing tests in a secret laboratory, he became the pinnacle of human physical perfection. The conclusion of these tests saw Rogers administered with the Super-Soldier serum before being subjected to a series of vita-rays — a unique combination of wavelengths of radiation designed to both accelerate and stabilise the effects of the serum on the body.
We’re not sure what the Super-Soldier serum’s ingredients are, but we can speculate on what would be the outcome if your body was subjected to wavelengths of radiation. The unit sievert measures radiation, with this quantifying the amount of radiation that is absorbed by human tissues. One sievert equals 1,000 millisieverts (mSv), while one mSv equals 1,000 microsieverts. We are exposed to between two and three mSv of natural radiation per year. Have a CT scan and the organ studied typically receives a radiation dose of 15 mSv if you’re an adult and 30 mSv if the individual is a newborn baby, while a standard chest X-ray often involves exposure to around 0.02 mSv and a dental X-ray usually 0.01 mSv.
However, the lowest level you can be exposed to in which any increase in the risk of cancer is evident is 100 mSv per year. Meanwhile, cumulative exposure to one sievert is said to cause a fatal cancer many years later in five out of every 100 individuals exposed to the radiation. Become exposed to large doses of radiation or acute radiation though and your central nervous system, as well as your red and white blood cells, will be destroyed and your immune system compromised.
Steve Rogers may well have become as strong as a human can be, with help from exposure to radiation then, but in reality, the result could be that your body will be unable to fight off infections — if it does indeed survive the ordeal!
Spider-Man (aka Peter Parker)
Peter Parker’s tour of a high-tech science facility certainly took an interesting turn as he was bitten by a radioactive spider. Before long, the nerdy teenager was swinging across New York City and saving civilians from evil villains under the guise of Spider-Man.
Would you really transform into a webbed superhero following a bite from a spider oozing with radioactivity? Technology publication Gizmodo has shed light on this by imagining a scenario where a person is bitten by a spider whose phosphates in its DNA backbone had been replaced with a radioactive isotope of phosphorous, Phosphorous-32.
On a side note, you should be aware that while we haven’t specifically been told what the spider that bit Peter Parker was irradiated with, the recent origin stories of Spider-Man have at times noted DNA hybridisation.
So, looking back at the spider irradiated with Phosphorous-32. Due to the half-life of this radioactive isotope of phosphorous being around 14 days, Phosphorous-32 would only stay in the human body for a short amount of time and actually likely be excreted eventually through the urine. Gizmodo also points out that Phosphorous-32 is a beta emitter, and so would be blocked by a thin sheet plastic to prevent too much harm being caused to those who stood nearby the person who had been bitten by the radioactive spider.
Therefore, you’re more likely to suffer irritation such as itching, redness and soreness for a few days, rather than being able to climb up walls with ease!
Superman (aka Clark Kent)
An alien hailing from the planet Krypton, Clark Kent absorbs the sun’s radiation when he’s on Earth and gets the abilities to become Superman. In the real world though, ultraviolet rays in sunlight can be harmful to the skin when the body is exposed to too much of it. Subject the skin to a large amount of sunlight and you may witness mild reddening in the short turn and suffer from sunburn, whereby the skin will be blistered and eventually will peel.
In the long-term, however, too much sun exposure can lead to ageing skin. You’ll notice this if the skin becomes mottled, wrinkled or leathery. On a much more serious note, the risk that you’ll develop skin cancer will increase too.
So, while Superman may have some amazing abilities, it’s much wiser to apply sunscreen onto any exposed areas of skin instead of letting the sun’s rays do their damage on your body!
It’d certainly be amazing to have superhero powers. However, our human bodies seem incapable of going through the transformation that many of our comic book heroes did when they came into possession of their abilities.