Most of the scans involve X-rays but some children also get CT scans, which entail far more radiation and can raise the risk for cancer.
A recent large study found that X-rays of the chest, hand and foot are the most common.
Forty-two percent of the children examined had at least one radiation procedure, and 25 percent had two or more just during the three-year study period -- and that doesn't even count dental X-rays, which were not included in the study.
Parent Dish reports:
"The rapid growth of CT scans, which provide extremely detailed pictures of the body, and other medical imaging in recent decades has led to big increases in the average American's total radiation exposure ... The authors extrapolate from their data that nearly 6 million U.S. children will get at least one CT scan during a three-year period."
Americans are now exposed to seven times more radiation from diagnostic scans than they were in 1980 -- a risk for everyone but an even greater danger for children.
The average U.S. child will receive more than seven radiation scans by the time they reach age 18 in the form of X-rays and CT scans. However, this study did not include dental X-rays, so the exposure is actually much higher.
X-rays are concerning in their own right, but about 8 percent of these kids will get at least one CT scan, often used to screen for brain injuries and appendicitis, while another 3 percent will get two or more. CT scans emit a large dose of radiation that can raise the risk of cancer later in life, and children, whose tissues are still developing, are particularly at risk.
As Parent Dish reported, one study found that an infant has an eight times higher risk of suffering from a fatal cancer caused by an abdominal CT scan than a 50-year-old receiving the same procedure, so the risk cannot be taken lightly.
Why are Kids Getting So Many Radiation Scans?
More than 70 million CT scans per year are now performed in the US, including at least 4 million on children. This is up from just 3 million in 1980.
While high-tech imaging can be beneficial in certain cases, it must be used SPARINGLY and only when absolutely necessary because it exposes your body to dangerous ionizing radiation -- radiation that is proven to cause cancer.
So why are so many CT scans suddenly being done?
- Physicians fear being sued for malpractice if they miss something and are using far more CYA (cover your you know what) medicine to make sure they limit their risk of being sued for missing something.
- Some patients pressure their physicians for scans "just to be safe," especially after hearing advertisements touting the benefits of new hi-tech tests (without disclosure of the risks).
- Physicians are more often using scans to screen "the worried well" (such as scanning former smokers for lung cancer).
- Many doctors have purchased their own imaging equipment for their practices. This adds a financial incentive into the mix and sets the stage for overuse of the technology.
- There's a trend toward commercially advertised full-body CT scans to "find everything wrong with you." Consumers with extra cash lying around (in excess of $1,000 in most cases) are being encouraged to undergo a full-body scan as a preventive measure.
CT Scans Will Raise Your Child's Risk of Cancer
If you take your child to the emergency room and a CT scan is suggested, you'll want to think, hard, about whether the benefit of the scan is worth the risk.
What is the risk?
X-rays and other diagnostic tests that rely on ionizing radiation, such as mammograms and CT scans:
- Cause chromosomal mutations that are often irreparable, and the effects are cumulative (meaning the more x-rays and scans your child receives, the worse the effects will be).
- Cause DNA changes that are proven to lead to cancer.
- Cause DNA damage in your arteries, which can lead to cardiovascular disease.
- Often result in misdiagnosis and false positives, increasing the likelihood of follow up tests—further increasing your radiation exposure.
Further, CT scans alone will cause nearly 30,000 unnecessary cancer cases (about 2 percent of cancer cases), which will lead to about 14,500 deaths, according to a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
A New England Journal of Medicine study from 2007 also estimated that overuse of diagnostic CT scans may cause up to 3 million excess cancers over the next 20 to 30 years.
David Brenner of Columbia University, lead author of the study, told USA Today:
"About one-third of all CT scans that are done right now are medically unnecessary … Virtually anyone who presents in the emergency room with pain in the belly or a chronic headache will automatically get a CT scan. Is that justified?"
What's more, CT scans given to kids are often calibrated for adults, so children absorb two to six times the radiation needed to produce clear images -- and 1,500 may die each year of radiation-induced cancer later in life. Efforts are underway to update CT scanners with alert systems that remind operators to turn down the radiation doses for children, but this is not yet widely implemented.
Remember -- There is NO Safe Dose of Ionizing Radiation
Any time your child receives an X-ray or a CT scan, there is risk involved (and the risk is much higher from CT scans because the radiation dose is higher; a CT scan of the chest delivers 100 times the radiation of a conventional chest X-ray).
Further, cells cannot correctly repair every type of complex genetic damage induced by ionizing radiation, and sometimes cells cannot repair such damage at all.
Unlike some other mutagens, ionizing radiation has access to the genetic molecules of every internal organ, if the organ is within the x-ray beam. Within such organs, even a single high-speed high-energy electron, set into motion by an x-ray photon, has a chance of inducing the types of damage that defy repair. That is why there is no risk-free dose-level when it comes to ionizing radiation.
And when such mutations are not immediately deadly to your cells, they endure and accumulate with each additional exposure to x-rays or other ionizing radiation.
Radiation even damages the DNA in your arteries, which in turn causes the cells lining your arteries to multiply abnormally, decreasing the size of the arterial lumen and effectively "narrowing" your arteries. This radiation-induced tissue inside your arteries is similar to scar tissue, decreasing vessel elasticity and increasing your risk for arterial blockage.
According to John Gofman, M.D., Ph.D., evidence indicates that more than 50 percent of deaths from cancer and more than 60 percent of deaths from ischemic heart disease may be X-ray-induced.
Radiation Accidents do Happen, More Often Than You'd Like to Think
The difference between a routine CT scan and a death sentence is as simple as a computer error causing you to be blasted with errant beams of radiation, leaving you in unspeakable pain, or worse.
People know very little about the harm that can ensue when safety rules are violated and these powerful and technologically complex machines go awry, but in January 2010 The New York Times published an article about the alarming rise in radiation-related injuries and deaths.
The complexity of medical radiation technology has created new avenues for error by way of software flaws, faulty programming, poor safety procedures or inadequate staffing and training. And when those errors occur, they can be severe -- even deadly.
The following types of radiation injuries have been reported:
- DNA damage and mutations
- Acute radiation toxicity (burned skin, nausea, dry mouth, difficulty swallowing, loss of taste, tongue swelling, hair loss, etc.)
- Skin burns, including gaping holes in the body that won't close
- Wounds that won't heal due to damaged blood vessels and chronic inflammation, which deprive the area of nourishment
- Organ damage
- Bone death, such as destruction of the jaw, and loss of teeth
Always Think Very Carefully Before Using Radiation Scans
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.
Remember, too, that children are especially vulnerable to the effects of radiation and this should weigh in on your decision.
Do not simply consent to X-rays or CT scans that seem unnecessary or excessive … and if you do go ahead with it, make sure your provider is using the lowest radiation dose possible for the screening, as well as providing protection for other body parts not being screened (such as a thyroid collar).
Be aware, also, that CT scans are not only used for brain injuries or abdominal cases. New cone-beam CT scanners are increasingly being used in dentist offices too. The technology provides clear 3-D images of teeth, which dentists and, especially, orthodontists, are using to lure patients, including children and teenagers who need braces.
It's actually quite common nowadays for teens to receive one to four cone-beam CT scans during the course of their orthodontic treatment.
Cone-beam CT scans are lower in radiation than typical CT scans used in the medical field, but that doesn't mean they are without risk. Further, in the case of cone-beam CT scans, there is an alternative … a tiny digital camera can be used to take 3-D images of your child's teeth, with absolutely no radiation risks whatsoever.
So no matter what diagnostic scan you are considering, including an X-ray or a CT scan, always assess the risks versus the benefits before consenting. The UC Berkeley Wellness Letter offers some good suggestions for doing so:
- Is the test really necessary?
- What difference will it make in my care?
- Is there a non-radiation alternative, such as ultrasound or MRI (or digital photographs)?
- Is the facility accredited by the American College of Radiology?
- Will the test use the lowest level of radiation for adequate imaging? (Will it be adjusted for my size, or my child's size?)
- Will the scan be limited to the indicated area, and will nearby areas be shielded?