Your Health

CT Scanners Scrutinized For Radiation Risks

Radiation is part of everyday life. Flying in a plane, making dinner at your kitchen's granite countertop or walking by a building made of stone all expose you to radiation.

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X-ray radiation from medical scans now rivals the doses from everday sources for Americans. iStockphoto.com hide caption

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X-ray radiation from medical scans now rivals the doses from everday sources for Americans.

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But a dramatic rise in medical scans since the early '80s, and the heavy doses from some imaging techniques — especially CT scans — have heightened worries about the increased cancer risk from the exposure.

Now Americans get as much radiation from medical scans as they do from all other sources, says a recent report.

Some scans pose unique dangers. More than 200 stroke patients scanned at a Los Angeles hospital were overdosed with radiation because of errors. Some people lost hair after the scans.

The Food and Drug Administration  is concerned about excessive doses due to mistakes and the cumulative risks from properly done tests.

Simon Choi, a radiation and health expert at the Food and Drug Administration, told NPR that some scientific estimates suggest as many as 20,000 future cancers could be due to CT scans performed in the U.S.

To reduce the risks, the agency is urging doctors to make sure each CT scan they order is really needed. The agency also wants doctors and patients to talk about alternatives. Choi says patients can ask their doctors whether a scan is justified and if there are other options.

Other choices that don't expose patients to X-rays, include ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI.

FDA also supports safeguards for scanners to alert technicians when radiation doses exceed guidelines and block acutely harmful doses. Those changes are in the works for new CT scanners. Manufacturers are also working to retrofit existing machines.

CT scans provide valuable information to doctors. And the agency isn't suggesting that patients forgo necessary scans.

But even makers of the machines are now supporting a message of moderation. Dave Fisher, who heads the Medical Imaging & Technology Alliance, tells NPR, "The last thing we want as manufacturers is individuals receiving scans they don't need."

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