In alpha decay, a positively charged particle, identical to the nucleus of helium 4, is emitted spontaneously. This particle, also known as an alpha particle, consists of two protons and two neutrons. It was discovered and named by Sir Ernest Rutherford in 1899.
Alpha decay usually occurs in heavy nuclei such as uranium or plutonium, and therefore is a major part of the radioactive fallout from a nuclear explosion. Since an alpha particle is relatively more massive than other forms of radioactive decay, it can be stopped by a sheet of paper and cannot penetrate human skin. A 4 MeV alpha particle can only travel about 1 inch through the air.
Although the range of an alpha particle is short, if an alpha decaying element is ingested, the alpha particle can do considerable damage to the surrounding tissue. This is why plutonium, with a long half-life, is extremely hazardous if ingested.