Medical Radiation Dangers
Some of the most powerful and widely used diagnostic tools we have today can also be terribly dangerous. While it’s true that X-rays, CAT scans, mammograms, and PET scans have revolutionized health care, the high levels of radiation they can expose you to is way up on my list of serious, but unnecessary, threats to your health.
What is diagnostic medical radiation?
It’s what the name says: X-ray radiation that “gets under our skin” to reveal what the eye can’t see and even the skilled hands can’t discern.
It can be a relatively small amount of radiation, as from dental X-rays; a larger amount, as in chest X-rays; or a very large amount, as in CAT and PET scans—which deliver the equivalent of 1000 or more chest X-rays.
They can spot precursors to conditions, or the early presence of many conditions—cancer, cardiovascular disease, kidney stones, infectious disease, appendicitis, trauma, and musculoskeletal disorders—more accurately and sooner than blood tests and other diagnostic tools. That’s why they’ve vastly reduced the need for once-common biopsies, exploratory surgeries, and other invasive, risky procedures.
What could possibly go wrong?
Each individual responds differently to the radiation absorbed during a diagnostic procedure.
But the common denominator is that all radiation procedures create free radicals. These can damage DNA, sometimes immediately, sometimes well into the future, as radiation accumulates in our bodies—it doesn’t completely pass through us, a percentage stays in us and builds over time.
This is obviously a key area of concern because damaged DNA is dangerous DNA.
But the medical community is divided over how much radiation creates how much risk—and whether the benefits outweigh the risk.
How much radiation is too much?
Some experts say that maybe all diagnostic radiation is is somewhat risky—but there’s no conclusive proof. And the benefits of even the heavy radiation tools—CAT scans, PET scans, many mammograms—far outweigh the possible risks.
The other school is diametrically opposed.
One study concluded that CAT scans alone will increase the number of US cancers by nearly 30,000 (about 2 percent of cancer cases).
Result? About 14,500 unnecessary deaths.
And that’s a conservative estimate. Another study estimated that overuse of CAT scans may cause up to 3 million radiation-caused cancers over the next 20 to 30 years.
The radiation scorecard
One way to measure how much radiation you receive from a medical procedure is to compare it to natural background radiation.
Natural background radiation is radiation that occurs without human interference, such as radiation beamed down to Earth from the sun and stars (celestial radiation), radiation from materials (like potassium) which naturally occur in the surface of the planet (terrestrial radiation), and radiation you breathe in or eat from plants, animals, and water which have absorbed terrestrial or celestial radiation.
Let’s look at the most common procedures’ radiation profiles, compared to your daily natural background radiation exposure:
|Procedure||Days of Natural Background Radiation|
4 small images of mouth and jaw
1 image of chest area
routine preventive screening to detect possible problems
additional X-rays examing specific problem areas
|2500 (6.8 years)|
hundreds of X-rays at slightly different angles, combined by computer to create a 3-d image
|up to 2000 (5.5 years)|
A radioactive “tracer” substance is injected or swallowed and its emissions are recorded as it moves through your body
|up to 5125 (14 years)|
When to say “no”
You and your doctor must be aware of the risks involved in radiation-based diagnoses. That means knowing when to say “no.”
Dentists, for example, routinely take X-rays of your teeth and jaws, and patients routinely agree to the procedure. They’re rarely even asked for permission.
Conventional wisdom? It’s a “tiny amount” of radiation, not much of a concern.
My recommendation? There’s no such thing as a “tiny” amount of DNA damage. Good eyesight and magnifying tools are the best dental diagnostic tools ninety percent of the time.
I recommend telling your dentist “no,” unless you’re in pain or have a serious, immediate problem.
When it comes to CAT scans, over-prescribing is again a problem. Ironically, the technology is so good, it’s widely overused.
One physician said “About one-third of all CAT scans are medically unnecessary … virtually anyone who presents in the emergency room with pain in the belly or a chronic headache will automatically get a CAT scan.”
It’s a fast lane to a diagnosis.
That helps explain why some 85 million CAT scans are performed every year.
I recommend “no” to a “routine” CAT scan. Same with PET scans and mammograms.
In every instance, non-radiation based diagnostic tools are as or more effective than their radiating counterparts.Mammogram, no. Digital infrared imaging (DII), yes.
DII uses infrared radiation to look at every breast’s unique “thermal fingerprint”—a snapshot of the heat associated with normal blood circulation and other metabolic activity.
In pre-cancerous and cancerous tissue, the fingerprint looks different. That’s because tumors, the ultimate evil geniuses, cause increases in cellular activity—and its heat—to feed themselves and grow.
These temperature changes may signal risk. DII can find tumors or pre-tumors too small for mammography, self-examination, or other types of imaging—no dangerous radiation required.Mammogram, no again. X-ray, CAT scan, PET scan, no. Ultrasound, MRI, yes.
It’s simple. Ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) deliver better diagnostic images as good as or better than the radiation-based alternatives.
I should emphasize that there can be exceptions that require a radiation-based diagnosis. Just be sure your doctor knows all the safer alternatives—and your preference to avoid radiation if at all possible.
Anti-radiation specials on the menu
Sometimes radiation-based diagnostics are unavoidable. And everyone is exposed to the natural background radiation we discussed earlier, not to mention the fallout from, well, fallout, like old nuclear tests and more recent nuclear accidents.
But Mother Nature gives us plenty of delicious ways to protect against radiation damage.
Tea made from Chaga mushroom extract, for example, boasts the highest concentration of antioxidants anywhere and protects against DNA damage.
Blueberries, as always, are a powerhouse of protective antioxidants and specialized anti-cancer compounds. In season, eat 45 a day or try a supplement containing the extract.
Get plenty of vitamin A from sweet potatoes, carrots, dark leafy greens, winter squashes, lettuce, dried apricots, cantaloupe, bell peppers, fish, liver, and tropical fruits. Just a cup of cooked carrots, for example, delivers your recommended daily intake.
A supplement that delivers 5,000 IU also does the job.
Three more essential guardians of your DNA:
- Vitamin C: 1,000 mg from a supplement or from bell peppers, dark leafy greens, kiwifruit, broccoli, berries, citrus fruits, tomatoes, peas, and papayas.
- Vitamin D: 5,000 mg or from fish oils, fatty fish, mushrooms, beef liver, cheese, and egg yolks. And try to get 15 minutes of sunshine on your skin every day—your body will create your own, home-grown vitamin D.
- Curcumin is one of the most potent tumor-inhibiting foods. A supplement with 500 mg does the job. But be sure it’s a “bioavailable” formulation, meaning your body easily absorbs all the goodness.
Always talk with your doctor before any behavior, diet, or supplement changes.
Take good care.
- “Radiation Risk of Medical Imaging for Adults and Children” Inside Radiology. Last saved October 13, 2016. Last accessed October 19, 2016.
- Group, Edward. “Chaga Mushroom: The Immune-Boosting Superfood” Last Updated June 24, 2016. Last accessed October 18, 2016.
- Sternberg, Steve. “Study: Unnecessary CT scans exposing patients to excessive radiation” USA Today. Updated November 29, 2007. Last accessed October 18, 2016.
- “Mammography: Benefits, Risks, What You Need to Know” Published Jun 14, 2016. Last accessed October 18, 2016.
- Levy, Andrea. “Cancer Risks Of CT Scans” Life Extension. Published December, (NA) 2015. Last accessed October 18, 2016.
- Denoon, Daniel. “What You Need to Know About Radiation Risks From CT, Other Scans.” Published March 21, 2010. Last accessed October 18, 2016.
- “Mammography/Thermography/Ultrasound: What’s the Difference?” Published NA. Last accessed October 18, 2016.
- Mammogram guidelines: What’s changed? – Mayo Clinic” Published March 2, 2016. Last accessed September 28, 2016.
Last Updated: August 16, 2018
Originally Published: January 18, 2017