Radiation from Dental CT Scans Raising Concerns

Children face a potentially serious radiation risk when they go to the dentist, according to a new report in The New York Times. While doctors have taken steps to protect children from excess radiation, the issue has largely been ignored by dental offices. Not only are many dentists still relying on older x-ray films that require more radiation, but some specialists like orthodontists are adopting a newer type of CT scan that emits much more radiation than traditional scanners.

According to the Times, that new device is called a cone-beam CT scanner. Promoters of the technology say it is safe, and helps specialists to work with more precision and to identify problems they might otherwise miss. However, there is little research available to verify those claims, and promotion of cone-beam scanners has been fueled in part by misinformation about safety and efficacy, the Times said.

Some of that misinformation is coming from dentist paid by the scanner manufacturers to give talks and seminars on the devices, as well as industry-sponsored magazines and conferences. For instance, according to The Times, last month one of the leading cone-beam manufacturers, Imaging Sciences International, was allowed to underwrite an entire issue of The Journal of the American Dental Association dedicated to scanners. The issue included, of course, an article that put the technology in a favorable light. The journal was sent to thousands of dentists.

That favorable article equated a cone-beam CT with an airport scan, but in reality, the device can produce hundreds of times more radiation, the Times said. A report in the British Journal of Radiology last year, for instance, concluded that cone-beam CT scans produced “significantly higher” levels of radiation than conventional dental imaging. According to The New York Times, a number of dental groups in this country and in Europe have questioned whether the benefit of routine use justifies the added risk.

The Times article also points out that increasing use of the cone-beam scan has been lucrative for manufacturers and for dentists. More than 3,000 scanners and about 30 different models have been sold, at prices up to $250,000. Dentists can profit if they own their own device, as they charge several hundred dollars for each scan.

Regulators are also not well-equipped to oversee this new technology, the Time said, due to a lack of data on radiation exposure. No protocols or guidelines exist for cone-beam CT scans, as is the case with other types of imaging.

On the state level, some states do not even have a policy in place to inspect dental X-ray units. Many that do generally evaluate machine performance, the Time’s said, while few examine the overall radiation risk to the patient.

Help with legal claims involving CT scan radiation overdoses is available here.

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