Where in life would you say that you get the highest doses of radiation? Would you say it’s from the television or cell phone? TSA scanners at the airport? If you did, you’d be wrong. According to The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, most people receive their highest levels of exposure to radiation at the doctor’s office, where we often cheerfully consent to being bombarded with radiation, whether in diagnostic tests or treatments.
The Bulletin, which has dedicated its May/June issue to the topic of low-level radiation exposure and made it available as a free download, reveals some startling facts about medical radiation.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko said, “Remarkably to me, about one-third of all patients admitted to hospitals today are diagnosed or treated using radiation or radioactive materials.” For the first time in history, said a 2008 report by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, doses of medical radiation are exceeding the lifetime dose people receive from natural background radiation or any other source.
A 2007 paper in the New England Journal of Medicine asserted that the increase of CT scans and other high-dose x-ray technology is already having an effect on public health. Researchers David J. Brenner and Eric J. Hall estimate that 1.5 to 2 percent of all cancers in the United States may be attributable to radiation received in CT scans.
Another significant source of radiation exposure is cancer treatment. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-MA), chairman of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee has raised concerns about Nuclear Regulatory Commission rules that allow cancer patients treated with radioactive isotopes to go home or check into hotels.
These patients, argues Markey, are an exposure risk to the people around them for periods as long as a week after treatment. He also argues that security measures around radioactive isotopes in hospitals are not stringent enough, making the materials dangerously available to terrorists and other malefactors.
The tensions between following the advice of one’s doctor and weighing the the risks of overexposure can arise startlingly early in life. The Bulletin told the story of a family with a young baby who rolled off of a couch, striking his head on the floor.
The parents took the child to the emergency room, where, faced with the specter of possible bruising on the child’s brain, the doctor said, “If you’d like, I can do a CT scan.”
The Bulletin said, “‘Do it,’ said the mom. ‘Wait a sec,’ said the dad. The mom remembers their subsequent deliberations: ‘He’s talking “lifetime exposure,” and all I can think is: BRUISING ON THE BRAIN! — which for all I know is manageable but which sounds terrifying.’ So, into the scanner went the baby.”
The baby was fine, but its parents were concerned about levels of radiation. The father was an expert on nuclear security. The mother was an editor for the Bulletin. While the short-term safety of their baby was obviously paramount, in a world where medical exposure to radiation is on the upswing, the parents had real concerns about his cumulative lifetime dose, and whether it was worth the possible risks.
Interestingly, as the article points out, people are less afraid of medical radiation than the trace amounts of radiation given off by airport scanners and the non-ionizing radiation emitted by their cell phones, when in fact, medical radiation is much stronger and, if misused, can result in much more severe outcomes. It attributes this to the fact that people trust their doctors much more readily than the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, for better or worse.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was founded in 1945 by scientists, engineers and other personnel who worked on the creation of the world’s first atomic bomb. The publication was their response to the potential horrors they believed could be unleashed in a world full of militarized nuclear technology. The group created the famous Doomsday Clock, which is set each year to reflect the nearness of “midnight,” i.e., humanity’s total nuclear annihilation.
(image via Shutterstock)