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If you could watch a single atom of a radioactive isotope, U-238, for example, you wouldn’t be able to predict when that particular atom might decay.
It might take a millisecond, or it might take a century. But if you have a large enough sample, a pattern begins to emerge.
The primary carbon-containing compound in the atmosphere is carbon dioxide, and a very small amount of carbon dioxide contains C-14.
The rule is that a sample is safe when its radioactivity has dropped below detection limits. So, if radioactive iodine-131 (which has a half-life of 8 days) is injected into the body to treat thyroid cancer, it’ll be “gone” in 10 half-lives, or 80 days.
This can be used to evaluate and identify sources of groundwater exchange with surface water, discharge of continental waters into coastal waters, and water retention times [ 40 ].
Scientists look at half-life decay rates of radioactive isotopes to estimate when a particular atom might decay.
Plants are then eaten by animals, making C-14 a part of the cellular structure of all living things.
As long as an organism is alive, the amount of C-14 in its cellular structure remains constant.