Often, patients know little about the harm that can result when safety rules are violated and ever more powerful and technologically complex machines go awry.
The complexity of medical radiation technology has created new avenues for error—through software flaws, faulty programming, poor safety procedures or inadequate staffing and training.
When those errors occur, they can be deadly.
Regulators and researchers can only guess how often radiotherapy accidents occur. Accidents are chronically underreported, and some states do not require that they be reported at all.
Last year a Philadelphia hospital gave the wrong radiation dose to more than 90 patients with prostate cancer—and then kept quiet about it. In 2005, a Florida hospital disclosed that 77 brain cancer patients had received 50 percent more radiation than prescribed because a powerful linear accelerator had been programmed incorrectly for nearly a year.
When the treatment is worse than the disease, it’s time to find another treatment.
If you haven’t read the entire NY Times article, I would encourage you to do so as they provide graphic details of the complications that have occurred during these types of x-ray “accidents.”
As the article makes clear, anyone receiving x-rays for treatment of cancer is particularly prone to these fatal mistakes, since the doses involved are massive.
If you or someone you know is receiving this type of therapy, you need to print the NY Times article out and bring it to your doctor and DEMAND that they explain in CAREFUL detail how they are going to prevent this from happening to you.
If it were myself, or my family member, you can be darn sure I would be in the room with the technician double-checking them to make sure that the correct dose was administered.
Is Non-Accidental X-Ray Treatment Safe?
Setting aside the problem of medical errors for a moment, even x-rays that are used “as directed” can expose you to significant risk.
A host of epidemiological studies have strongly suggested that x-rays and other ionizing radiation are a cause of most types of human cancer. X-rays may even be responsible for most of the deaths from cancer and ischemic heart disease, according to John Gofman, MD, PhD, a professor at U. C. Berkeley and one of the leading experts in the world. Gofman is a nuclear physicist and a medical doctor who wrote a book on the subject.
Ionizing radiation is a uniquely potent mutagen due to its ability to wreak havoc upon your cells and their genetic code.
Your cells are unable to repair the very complex genetic damage done by x-rays. Some of the mutated cells die, but others do not, and the cells that go on living have a proliferative advantage—giving rise to the most aggressive cancers.
Unlike some other mutagens, x-rays have access to the genetic molecules of every one of your internal organs, if the organ is within range of the x-ray beam. Even a single high-speed, high-energy electron, set into motion by an x-ray photon, can bounce around and cause you irreparable damage.
That is why there is no safe dose of x-rays.
X-rays are 2 to 4 times more mutagenic than high-energy beta and gamma rays, per rad (R) of exposure. Fluoroscopy is particularly damaging because the x-ray beam stays “on” during the procedure.
Radiation was introduced into medicine almost immediately after the discovery of the x-ray by Wilhelm Roentgen in 1895. Since then, imaging technologies like CT, MRI and nuclear medicine scans have exploded.
According to a study by the Government Accountability Office, the amount spent on medical imaging doubled between 2000 and 2006, reaching about $14 billion a year from Medicare alone.
And a 10-year study by University of California, San Francisco, found the use of CT scans doubled between1997 and 2006.
CT scans and mammograms emit far more radiation than conventional X-rays. A CT scan of the chest delivers 100 times the radiation of a conventional chest X-ray, and a mammogram delivers 1,000 times more radiation.
According to David Brenner of Columbia University, about one-third of all CT scans done today are unnecessary. He predicts from his study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine[i], that overuse of diagnostic CT scans may cause up to 3 million cancers over the next 20 to 30 years.
Even the American Cancer Society lists high-dose radiation to the chest as a medium to high risk factor for developing cancer.
You’re being Needlessly Over-Exposed
There is no doubt that the use of radiation in medicine has many benefits—that’s indisputable. However, you may not be aware that you could be having the same x-rays done for a fraction of the radiation exposure.
We’ve had the technical know-how for years.
Within the professions of radiology and radiologic physics, there are mainstream experts who have shown how the dosage of x-rays in current practice could be cut by 50 percent—and much more—without any loss of information and without eliminating a single procedure.
The potential for dose-reduction may far exceed 50 percent without loss of quality, and in fact with an improvement in quality due to uniform exposure:
- Radiation can be reduced at least 5-fold for some common x-ray exams
- Radiation can be reduced at least 8-fold for abdominal exposures
- Mammogram radiation can be reduced 55- to 69-fold for various breast images
But do you think radiologists are jumping at the chance to turn down their dials?
Not by a long shot. You might as well ask your physician to drive his new Corvette 50 miles per hour on the highway.
Think about it. By dialing down X-ray machines, they would last longer, needing fewer supplies and less frequent replacements, and patients would stay healthier. That doesn’t sound like a plan that will generate any big year-end bonuses for the x-ray device company reps.
And the oncologists would be much less busy.
Alternatives to CT Scans and Mammograms
There may be times when a CT scan might be warranted, depending on your condition. But in general, I suggest avoiding CT scans as much as possible. An MRI can often be substituted for a CT, with far fewer harmful side effects.
Most physicians continue to recommend mammograms for fear of being sued by a woman who develops breast cancer after he did not advise her to get one.
Despite what you have heard, there is no proof that mammograms will reduce your risk of dying from breast cancer. Although mammography does leads to the discovery of smaller, earlier stage tumors, it does not improve breast cancer survival rates over examination alone.
And mammograms produce a lot of false positives—as high as 89 percent—increasing your chances of being damaged by an unnecessary mastectomy, more radiation, and chemotherapy.
But I encourage you to instead consider a much safer and more effective alternative called thermographic breast screening.
A thermographic screening measures infrared heat from your body and translates this information into anatomical images. It uses no mechanical pressure or ionizing radiation, and can detect signs of breast cancer up to 10 years earlier than either mammography or a physical exam.
Playing in the High-Beam
Medicine has made some huge errors of judgment over the past several centuries, one of which involved a complete disregard for the power of the x-ray. The creation of the Shoe Fitting X-Ray Machine or Shoe Fitting Fluoroscope was one of the most laughable scientific blunders in history.
The shoe-fitting fluoroscope was the brainchild of Clarence Karrer of Milwaukee around 1924, who worked for his father, a dealer in x-ray equipment and surgical supplies.
This dangerous device was a common fixture in shoe stores during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. By the 1950s, about 10,000 units were operating in stores all over the U. S. A typical unit consisted of a vertical wooden cabinet with an opening near the bottom into which a person’s feet were placed.[ii]
When you looked through one of the three viewing ports on the top of the cabinet, you would see a fluorescent image of the bones of your feet inside the outline of your shoes. It was common for the child being fitted, the parent, and the shoe salesman to all be peering through the ports at once.
Most units had a push-button timer that could be set for the desired exposure time, from 5 to 45 seconds. The most common setting was 20 seconds.
Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
It WAS fun, except for the folks who were exposed to and damaged by rather large doses of radiation—particularly the machine operators and shoe salesman, who were in and out of the machine all day, every day.
Measurements of the amounts of radiation given off by these machines ranged from 7-14 R for a 20 second exposure, to 16-75 R/minute. There were also significant exposures for those standing several feet away from the machine while it was running.
In 1960, these machines were finally banned in the US, largely due to increasing pressure from insurance companies. There is some evidence that these machines continued to be used in Canada and the UK until around 1970.
Not one of medicine’s brighter ideas, to say the least!
[i] Brenner DJ and Hall EJ. “Computed tomography—And increasing source of radiation exposure,” NEJM (November 29, 2007) 357(22):2277-2284