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An earthquake. Then a tsunami. And now a radiation leak at a nuclear plant.
The disaster in Japan is one of the worst the world has seen. And even worse may be on the horizon.
The radiation is spreading to nearby cities and the Pacific Ocean. As a result, it's estimated 400,000 people could develop cancer. A population the size of Cleveland.
Traces of radiation have been found in milk at US stores. The full impact may not be measurable for years.
So how's it affecting the American public? It's making us scared... uneasy about the nuclear plants in our own backyards. We want to know: Can this happen to us? And what's our government doing about it?
But we live with a similar threat every day. It doesn't get the big headlines. But it's just as dangerous. And it could shorten your life... and the lives of your children.
This threat lurks at doctors' offices and diagnostic centers. Places where you're supposed to feel safe. Where you're meant to be helped... not harmed.
We're talking about radiation from X-rays and computed tomography (CT) scans.
These procedures have become standard. Most of us don't even give them a second thought... not even when exposing our children to the electromagnetic waves. And now doctors are ordering them at an increased rate. It's become alarming. Scans are being issued for every little thing... Instead of only major problems.
They can damage, mutate, or kill cells in the body. That could lead to cancer, damage to the reproductive system, or birth defects. Children are at greater risk. Their organs are more vulnerable to radiation. Since they have a longer life expectancy, cancer has more time to develop.
The National Cancer Institute, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and other medical centers conducted a study in 2007. The study found that CT scans performed in the US resulted in 29,000 new cancer cases a year. It was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
"What we learned is there is a significant amount of radiation with these CT scans, more than what we thought," said Dr. Rita Redberg, editor of the journal. "And there is a significant number of cancers. It's estimated that just from the CT scans done in one year, there will be 15,000 excess deaths. We're doing millions of CT scans every year and the numbers are increasing. That is a lot of excess deaths."
So what makes these everyday procedures so harmful? And what can you do to protect yourself? NHD researched the problem and found some interesting answers.
The Scoop on X-Rays
Radiation is a flow of energy in the form of waves or rays. We're exposed to it every day in many ways. Through cosmic rays... Underground radioactive substances... Microwaves... And even some of the foods we eat.
That's non-ionizing radiation. It could be harmful, depending on level of exposure, your diet, and other factors. But the body is usually able to heal itself.
Ionizing radiation is a different story. That's the type you're exposed to in a nuclear explosion... or every time you get an X-ray or CT scan. And that's what you should worry about.
Radiologists use ionizing radiation for diagnosis. It allows them to view the inside of your body.
But it's a double-edged sword. Ionizing radiation is also a potent carcinogen. It can remove electrons from atoms and molecules. That creates cell-damaging free radicals. And that's why the technician who gives you an X-ray covers you with a big lead vest... and steps out the room.
The medical industry is aware of the risks. They know it can kill you... or cause serious problems. Ovaries and testicles exposed to radiation can result in gene mutation. So X-rays could lead to deformities in children. Studies conducted as early as 1927 linked X-rays to cell damage. The evidence continues to mount.
The National Academy of Sciences released a study in 2005. It shows that radiation from X-rays and scans carries a risk for cancer. Even in low amounts. And it's not getting better. That's according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine. It says current cancers in the US due to CT scans may increase as much as four to five times what they are now.
The Radiological Society of North America and American College of Radiology offer some surprising insight. They say an abdominal or chest CT scan is equivalent to two to three years of background radiation. It instantly increases your cancer risk.
The FDA said radiation emitted from X-rays and CT is just slightly lower than what the Japanese faced in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. So why aren't they doing anything?
The use of CT scans and X-rays is also being used for patients at younger and younger ages.
Researchers at the Children's Hospital of Cincinnati studied the issue. They looked at data from 1995 to 2008. They found a five-fold increase in the percentage of CT scans given to children in emergency rooms. In other words, doctors are giving our children more and more radiation... knowing it could kill them.
Women are also at high risk. Paul Yaswen is a cell biologist and breast cancer research specialist. He works at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He did a study on the impact of radiation on breast cells. It ran in the online journal Breast Cancer Research.
Yaswen found that radiation changed the cells' microenvironment. Made it easier for cancerous cells to grow. The dosage used in the study was what a woman would receive in a routine mammogram.
"Many in the cancer research community, especially radiobiologists, have been slow to acknowledge and incorporate in their work the idea that cells in human tissues are not independent entities, but are highly communicative with each other and with their microenvironment," Yaswen said. "We provide new evidence that potential cancer agents and their effects must be evaluated at a systems level."
5 Simple Ways to Protect Yourself
Physicians do have other diagnostic imaging devices at their disposal that don't use ionizing radiation. Magnetic Resonance Imaging doesn't have any known negative effects. And it can be used for a wider variety of medical conditions. Thermography also doesn't contain ionizing radiation. For women, it could be used as an alternative to a mammography.
You should be aware of your exposure levels. Here are the typical exposure amounts for each scan:
- X-ray Security Scan – 0.00025 mSv
- Chest X-ray – 0.1 mSv
- Head CT – 1.5 mSv
- Mammography – 3.0 mSv
- Abdomen CT – 5.3 mSv
- Chest CT – 5.8 mSv
- CT Colonography – 3.6-8.8 mSv
- Cardiac CT Angiogram – 6.7-13 mSv
- Neonatal Abdominal CT – 20 mSv
The good news is there are a lot of natural ways to protect yourself. And they're backed by solid research.
One study was conducted by the University of Toronto and the University Health Network. Researchers looked at a unique blend of antioxidants. (Antioxidants help protect your cells from damage caused by free radicals.) They found that the blend helped prevent cell damage when taken orally before X-rays.
Dr. Kieran J. Murphy led the team. He said the formula reduced DNA injury by 50 percent.
"Pre-administering this formula before a medical imaging exam may be one of the most important tools to provide radioprotection and especially important for patients getting CT scans," he said.
The British Journal of Radiology published an article in 2004. It listed vitamins E, C, and beta-carotene as great defense against iodizing radiation.
Aside from supplementing with these nutrients, there's one other simple thing you can do. Discuss ionizing radiation procedures with your doctor. Ask if you really need them. Or if there are other options. Don't do anything you aren't comfortable with.