Radiation in Medicine: Treatment or Torment?

Medical imaging using computed tomography, CT scans, give patients large doses of external radiation that carry well-known risks of inducing cancers. Positron emission tomography or PET scans also involve relatively large external radiation doses, but have the additional risks of the internal radiation exposure from the “tracer” isotopes injected into the patient’s body. Always ask health providers about alternatives to X-rays, radiation treatments, and radioactive injections, especially CT and or PET scans.

Heike Daldrup-Link, associate professor of radiology at the Stanford School of Medicine, has recommended replacing CT and PET scans with sonograms and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). In Newsweek April 11, 2014, Daldrup-Link wrote that MRI and sonogram can “spot all of the tumors with none of the radiation. Rather than radioactive tracers, the new method sends an iron oxide contrast agent through the patient.”

There are crucial reasons to avoid CT and PET scans. Here are just a few:

+ Doing over 62 million scans every year is producing tens of thousands of cancers. (Surgeon Atul Gawandea, at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, says, “We know that doing 62 million scans every year for a population of 300 million is not just unnecessary and wasteful, but it’s dangerous. It’s producing tens of thousands of cancers.” (National Public Radio, “Morning Edition,” Sept. 3, 2009).

+A single chest CT scan is about 100 times the dose of a standard chest X-ray. (“CT Scans: Too Much of a Good Thing?” Newsweek, Dec. 5, 2008

+ One whole-body CT scan can deliver as much radiation in 10 minutes as 440 chest X-rays. (NBC News, “15,000 will die from CT scans done in 1 year,” Dec. 14, 2009)

+ A chest CT scan can give up to 700 times the dose of a chest X-ray. A simple chest X-ray (two views) exposes a person to an average of 0.01 millisieverts (mSv). The exposure from a standard chest CT is 7 mSv, or 700 times as much radiation. (Harvard Health Publishing, “Do CT Scans Cause Cancer?” March 2013); Other Experts have estimated that the whole-body scan is the equivalent of 900 chest X-rays. (“Body Scans,” Life Extension Magazine, Nov. 7, 2001, scientific review by Dr. Gary Gonzalez, MD, on Jan. 2021)

+ A 2009 study found CT scans deliver up to four times more radiation than what was previously believed. (“Radiation dose associated with common computed tomography examinations and the associated lifetime attributable risk of cancer,” Archives of Internal Medicine, Dec. 14, 2009)

+ A full-body CT scan equals about 500-to-700 ordinary chest X-rays. (“Are Body Scans a Scam?” Newsweek, May 19, 2002; & “Death Rays,” Newsweek, April 2, 2014)

+ A study led by the National Cancer Institute showed that CT scans administered in the United States in the year 2007 alone may contribute to 29,000 new cancer cases and nearly 15,000 cancer deaths. (“Projected cancer risks from computed tomographic scans performed in the United States in 2007,” Archives of Internal Medicine, Dec. 14, 2009; NBC News, Dec. 14, 2009)

+ “Medical X-rays May Join Carcinogen List” USA Today reported, noting that “Early CT Scans [Were] Linked to Latent Cancers.” (USA Today, Dec. 31, 2002)

+ “Diagnostic X-rays may increase the risk of developing childhood leukemia, according to a new study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health.” (Janet Epping, Medical News Today, Oct. 6, 2010)

+ A new report links increased cancer risk to CT scans. (Associated Press, New York Times, Nov. 29, 2007)

+ FDA scientist Julian Nicholas testified he was fired after he opposed the approval of CT scans for colon cancer screening on safety grounds. (Associated Press, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, March 31, 2010)

+ “Overused CT scans expose patients to deadly levels of radiation.” (Cardiologist Rita Redberg & radiologist Rebecca Smith-Bindman, “We Are Giving Ourselves Cancer,” New York Times, Jan. 31, 2014)

+ Seventy million CT scans done in the US in 2007 could lead to 29,000 future cancers. (National Institutes of Health, “Cancer Risks Associated with External Radiation From Diagnostic Imaging Procedures,” fn. 128, “Projected cancer risks from computed tomographic scans performed in the United States in 2007,” Archives of Internal Medicine, Dec. 14, 2009)

+ Medical imaging is one of the leading causes of breast cancer, according to the US Institute of Medicine. (“Death Rays,” Newsweek, April 11, 2014)

+ X- radiation from much-touted mammograms also raise breast cancer risks. Mammograms aimed at finding breast cancer might actually raise the chances of developing it in young women whose genes put them at higher risk for the disease, a study by leading European cancer agencies suggests. (Maria Cheng, AP, the Detroit News, Sept. 6, 2012)

+ Thirty-one years before the above report, Dr. John Gofman, M.D., Ph.D., warned in his 1981 book Radiation and Human Health that X-ray mammography may be causing more cancer than it finds, writing, “Finally the whistle was blown on this procedure when the question was raised as to whether more breast cancers were being induced than curable breast cancers were being found.” (emphasis in original; John W. Gofman, Radiation & Human Health, pp. 235, 620, and 866, citing J.C. Bailar III, “Mammography: a contrary view,” Annals of Internal Medicine, No. 84, pp.77-84, 1976; and “Radiation hazards of X-ray mammography,” in Late Biological Effects of ionizing Radiation, proceedings of a symposium, March 1978, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, Vol. I, pp. 251-261, 1978)

John LaForge is a Co-director of Nukewatch, a peace and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, and edits its newsletter.