Medical Radiation Poses Health Risks

As we’ve previously written, <"">CT scans are popular for the quick, relatively cheap way in which they provide three-dimensional pictures that provide an almost surgical view of the body. In many instances, these radiation-based procedures are replacing tests that don’t require radiation, such as ultrasound and MRI. But at what cost?

According to the Baltimore Sun, this type of medical imaging—x-ray and CT (computed tomography) scanning—is the fastest growing and, likely, the largest source of radiation exposure in the United States.

In the past ten years, hospitals—most specifically emergency rooms geared to children—have exposed pediatric patients to increasing doses of radiation, noted the Baltimore Sun. A just-published study by the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital that reviewed trends across the U.S. revealed a massive five-fold increase in pediatric CT scan use in children that jumped from 330,000 (1995) to 1.65 million (2008), wrote the Baltimore Sun.

These daunting figures raise new questions about the amount of medical radiation to which children are being exposed and point to a higher cumulative lifetime dose of medical radiation in children than those who are currently adults.

The Baltimore Sun noted that one abdominal CT scan subjects a patient to radiation comparable to about 400 chest x-rays. This is noteworthy because, when radiation particles are introduced to DNA, permanent genetic alterations can occur. Because radiation is cumulative, the affect on the sensitive bodies of children can be dangerous and includes significant physical responses, such as cancer. Take, for instance, noted the Baltimore Sun, a patient who undergoes three abdominal CT scans. In this case, that patient was exposed to the same amount of radiation as Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors standing within just a few miles of the atomic bomb blasts.

The Baltimore Sun pointed out that while it is difficult to prevent some radiation exposure, medical radiation can be minimized and is easily blamed on issues such as laziness: CT testing and x-rays replacing traditional assessments simply due to case overloads. In many cases, said a Johns Hopkins study from 2010, the three-fold increase in this type of testing did not correlate to diagnosis needs.

Often physicians will order imaging studies for so-called “defensive reasons,” said the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, which pointed out that physicians are fearful of medical malpractice lawsuits, relying heavily on over-testing, wrote the Baltimore Sun. Another cause has to do with medical reimbursement and physicians making up losses by ordering imaging at facilities in which they have a financial interest, added the Baltimore Sun. There is also the issue of physicians simply not understanding radiation risks.

While CT scans can be a vital tool for rapid diagnostic evaluation of children in the emergency department, the relatively higher radiation doses associated with CT, compared to most other imaging exams, continue to raise concerns over an increase in risks associated with ionizing radiation. A child’s organs are more sensitive to the effects of radiation than those of an adult, and they have a longer remaining life expectancy in which cancer may potentially form.

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