Radiation Concerns Over Increasing CT Scan Use

By Amir Khan on June 13, 2012 9:28 AM EDT

CT Scan
A patient is receiving a CT scan for cancer treatment planning (Photo: Creative Commons)

The use of CT scans and other imaging test has tripled over the past 15 years, according to a new study, published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The findings raise concerns over radiation exposure from the growing use of the tests.

"We should make ourselves aware as providers, make our patients aware, and make our referring physicians aware that there are risks to the population from radiation," Dr. Bibb Allen, vice chairman of the American College of Radiology, who was not involved in the study, told WebMD. "We certainly think that the benefits of imaging outweigh the risks. But that doesn't mean we should ignore the risks," says Allen, who was not involved in the research.

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Between 1996 and 2010, the rate of CT scans increased from 52 per 1,000 patients to 149 per 1,000 patients.  The researchers said this increase exposes more people to unnecessary radiation.

The average person experiences 2.4 millisieverts, or units, of radiation annually, which is not considered to be dangerous. CT scans typically emit up to 7 millisieverts of radiation, compared to .01 from an X-ray. Between 50 and 100 millisieverts increase your risk for cancer.

"There has been no carcinogen that has been studied as much as radiation," Dr. Rebecca Smith-Bindman, study author and a professor of radiology and biomedical imaging, told Fox News. "The studies are pretty clear - high exposure to radiation causes cancer. That being said, radiation is very helpful, but we try to keep those exposures as low as possible."

People who received repeated risks are at the greatest risk, according to the study. Researchers said that when tests become so widespread, people forget about the risks associated with them.

"Clearly the tests are great," Smith-Bindman told Fox News. "Partly the reason is they're useful and show a broader range of diseases. Partly it's because physicians and patients are so incredibly enamored with imaging. There's a belief that any imaging is good and so patients go to their providers wanting imaging, or physicians think their patients want imaging. There's a lot of testing when no one thinks it's going to help the patient. Sometimes they're just trying to see what's going on, to appease the patient."

Children are also at a high risk -- CT scans dramatically increase their risk of brain cancer, Dr. Diana  Miglioretti, senior investigator and biostatistician at the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle, told WebMD.

"What we found is that for 10% to 20% of kids, just one head CT scan got them to those level," Miglioretti said. So that's really scary."

Smith-Bindman is advocating for national guidelines to limit the amount of radiation a person can be exposed to from imaging tests annually.

"A lot of people say doses are going down and manufacturers are creating new, lower-dose imaging modalities, so the problem is gone," she told Reuters. "The problem is not gone. Patients are getting high doses - higher-than-needed doses - and there are no standards for patients to know what is the right dose." 

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