Bananas Are Radioactive (So Are Many Ordinary Objects)

Bananas
Getty Images

You may have read about everyday objects setting off radiation alarms at border crossings between the US and Canada and Mexico. Newsweek has an article describing how medical radiation treatments (e.g., bone scans) may lead to traveling delays when they trigger radiation sensors. When the sensors are tripped, border officials conduct more intensive inspections to make sure you aren't carrying nuclear weapons. There are other ways to set off the alarms. Do you carry kitty litter in your car to help provide traction in icy weather or to absorb oil? It's slightly radioactive. Do you have tile or granite in your vehicle for a home improvement project? It has a relatively high radiation signature. Do you have a lot of bananas? They are also slightly radioactive.

Key Takeaways: Bananas Are Radioactive

  • Bananas are slightly radioactive due to the presence of a natural isotope of potassium. Potassium is a key mineral in the fruit.
  • Many other common materials are also radioactive, including potatoes, bricks, and cat litter.
  • For the most part, these substances do not present a health risk. However, they can set off radiation sensors at ports of entry and their radioactivity is detectable using a Geiger counter.

It's pretty easy to understand why tile, granite, and kitty litter are radioactive. They contain low levels of minerals that naturally decay. Bananas are radioactive for a similar reason. The fruit contains high levels of potassium. Radioactive K-40 has an isotopic abundance of 0.01% and a half-life of 1.25 billion years. The average banana contains around 450 mg of potassium and will experience about 14 decays each second. It's no big deal. You already have potassium in your body, 0.01% as K-40. You are fine. Your body can handle low levels of radioactivity. The element is essential for proper nutrition. If you have a banana in your car for your lunch you aren't going to set off a Geiger counter. If you carry a produce truck full of them, you might encounter some problems. Ditto for a truck of potatoes or potassium fertilizer.
The point here is that radiation is all around you. If you do an internet search, you'll note significant concern (panic?) over bananas being radioactive. Are they radioactive?

Barely. If you set a banana on a detector you won't hear mad clicking. It won't glow in the dark when you turn out the lights. There is a perception that radiation is bad, bad, bad. It's just a part of life. Bricks are radioactive. Anything containing carbon (you) is slightly radioactive. Bananas are radioactive and it's no big thing. Well... except maybe to Homeland Security.