How dangerous is radiation from medical imaging?

It is a question that continues to inspire contentious debate within radiology and the greater medical profession: How harmful is imaging-related radiation exposure?

Many believe minimizing exposure from scans is the only way to ensure patients' safety and avoid long-term negative health impacts. Still others, such as James Welsh, MD, current president of the American College of Radiation Oncology, and Jeffry Siegel, PhD, CEO of Nuclear Physics Enterprises, believe the fears associated with radiation from medical imaging dwarf the actual risks of exposure, according to a recent article published online by U.S. News and World Report.

“Many of us grew up in an era of perpetual fear about the threat of nuclear war and were warned repeatedly about the dangers of radiation in any setting—including in lifesaving circumstances, like a computed tomography scan in a hospital,” wrote Welsh and Siegel. “But new evidence suggests those warnings were ill-founded, and may have had an unfortunate negative impact on patient care.”

While the authors have made similar arguments in the past, they believe new research into the effects of low-level radiation doses on human subjects supports this assertion.

The problem, according to Welsh and Siegel, is that the guiding standard of medical radiation safety—the linear non-threshold model, as it’s known—is based on astronomically high levels of exposure related to atom bomb detonations, not the modest amount of radiation that radiology patients may receive.

“As it turns out, newer research shows cells actually heal themselves after exposure to low levels of radiation,” they wrote. “Concerns over low doses of radiation from CT and X-ray scans are not only misguided, but may lead to more deaths from missed or delayed diagnosis than would be derived from radiation exposure.”

Welsh and Siegel believe the evidence is strong enough to warrant a re-evaluation of radiation risk assessments and creation of new guidelines for radiological staff and patient exposure.

“Evaluating the risks and benefits of low-dose radiation exposure through an updated model driven by new research is essential for providing patients the best care,” they wrote. “As we continue to move toward a more personalized approach to medicine, dependent on standards that support transparency, we must finally and decisively abandon the [linear non-threshold] model. Only then will we be able to begin work on repairing its damaging effects that, for the sake of our patients, we cannot afford to let linger any longer.”

Read the full article.