The dogma that genetic alterations are restricted to directly irradiated cells has been challenged by observations in which effects of ionizing radiation, characteristically associated with the consequences of energy deposition in the cell nucleus, arise in non-irradiated cells. These, so called, untargeted effects are demonstrated in cells that have received damaging signals produced by irradiated cells (radiation-induced bystander effects) or that are the descendants of irradiated cells (radiation-induced genomic instability). Radiation-induced genomic instability is characterized by a number of delayed adverse responses including chromosomal abnormalities, gene mutations and cell death. Similar effects, as well as responses that may be regarded as protective, have been attributed to bystander mechanisms. Whilst the majority of studies to date have used in vitro systems, some adverse non-targeted effects have been demonstrated in vivo. However, at least for haemopoietic tissues, radiation-induced genomic instability in vivo may not necessarily be a reflection of genomically unstable cells. Rather the damage may reflect responses to ongoing production of damaging signals; i.e. bystander responses, but not in the sense used to describe the rapidly induced effects resulting from direct interaction of irradiated and non-irradiated cells. The findings are consistent with a delayed and long-lived tissue reaction to radiation injury characteristic of an inflammatory response with the potential for persisting bystander-mediated damage. An important implication of the findings is that contrary to conventional radiobiological dogma and interpretation of epidemiologically-based risk estimates, ionizing radiation may contribute to malignancy and particularly childhood leukaemia by promoting initiated cells rather than being the initiating agent. Untargeted mechanisms may also contribute to other pathological consequences.