Children’s Exposure to Radiation via CT Scans and X-rays Raising Concerns

The average child will undergo seven radiation scans by they time they reach age 18, according to a new study. While some scans, like X-rays, pose little risk to these kids, concerns are growing that radiation exposure via CT scans could increase their risk of cancer.

“Our findings indicate that more awareness about the frequent use of these tests may be needed among care providers, hospitals and parents,” said the study’s lead author, Adam L. Dorfman, M.D., clinical assistant professor of pediatrics and communicable diseases and of radiology at the University of Michigan Medical School. “Imaging tests are a critical component of good medical care, but the high number of tests raises questions about whether we are being judicious in our use of the technology.”

The study, published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, identified 355,088 children under the age of 18 in five large US health care markets to track how often these imaging procedures are used. The study found that over 400,000 imaging procedures were performed in just 3 years, with 42.5 percent of the children receiving at least one of these procedures and many undergoing multiple tests. The types of tests the investigators considered included everything from routine x-rays that use very low doses of radiation to more advanced tests, like CT scans, that require doses that are greater. Based on these data, the average child in this study population would be expected to receive approximately 7 imaging procedures utilizing radiation by age 18.

The study focused on the numbers and types of procedures that were performed, and did not calculate specific doses of radiation that were received by each child.

Among the tests that the investigators considered, CT scans are the most important from the standpoint of radiation exposure. Nearly 8 percent of the children in this study received a CT scan in the 3-year study period, with 3.5 percent of the children receiving more than one. The authors extrapolate from their data that nearly 6 million US children will get at least one CT scan during a three-year period.

“Today’s children are undoubtedly getting many more of these studies than previous generations,” Dorfman said.

The researchers pointed out that children are more sensitive to radiation and their longer expected life spans also allows additional time for the emergence of detrimental effects.

The study’s authors note that each imaging procedure should be guided by the principle of ALARA, or As Low As Reasonably Achievable, which advocates for minimizing radiation doses while still obtaining sufficient clinical information.

The rapid growth in use of medical diagnostic imaging, such as CT scans, has led to widespread concern about radiation exposure in adults and the potential for future cancer risk in patients undergoing these tests. Despite widespread discussions about the health hazards of environmental exposures in children, radiation exposure from the frequent use of imaging procedures has received less attention. This latest study is a best-ever snapshot of radiation use in US children.

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