Friday, January 20, 2012

Radiation Risks from Medical Imaging Procedures

On December 13, 2011 the American Association of Physicists in Medicine issued a position statement (PP 25-A) about radiation risks from medical imaging procedures. It is brief, and I will quote it in its entirety:
The American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM) acknowledges that medical imaging procedures should be appropriate and conducted at the lowest radiation dose consistent with acquisition of the desired information. Discussion of risks related to radiation dose from medical imaging procedures should be accompanied by acknowledgement of the benefits of the procedures. Risks of medical imaging at effective doses below 50 mSv for single procedures or 100 mSv for multiple procedures over short time periods are too low to be detectable and may be nonexistent. Predictions of hypothetical cancer incidence and deaths in patient populations exposed to such low doses are highly speculative and should be discouraged. These predictions are harmful because they lead to sensationalistic articles in the public media that cause some patients and parents to refuse medical imaging procedures, placing them at substantial risk by not receiving the clinical benefits of the prescribed procedures.

AAPM members continually strive to improve medical imaging by lowering radiation levels and maximizing benefits of imaging procedures involving ionizing radiation.
News articles discussing this position statement appeared on the Inside Science and Physics Central websites.

The 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology discusses the risk of radiation in Section 16.13. Dose is the energy deposited by radiation in tissue per unit mass, and its unit of a gray is equal to one joule per kilogram. A sievert is also a J/kg, but it differs from a gray in that it includes a weighting factor that measures the relative biological effectiveness of the radiation, and is used to measure the equivalent dose (although often, including in the remainder of this blog entry, people get a little sloppy and just say “dose” when they really mean “equivalent dose”). A sievert is a rather large dose of radiation, and when discussing medical imaging or background radiation exposure, scientists often use the millisievert (mSv).

Table 16.7 of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology lists typical radiation doses for many medical imaging procedures. For example, a simple chest X ray has a dose of about 0.06 mSv, and a CT scan is 1–10 mSv. The average radiation dose from all natural (background) sources is given in Table 16.6 as 3 mSv per year (primarily from exposure to radon gas). A pilot logging 1000 hours in the air per year receives on the order of 7 mSv annually.

Perhaps the most interesting sentence in the AAPM position statement is “Risks of medical imaging at effective doses below 50 mSv for single procedures or 100 mSv for multiple procedures over short time periods are too low to be detectable and may be nonexistent.” To me, the phrase “may be nonexistent” seems to cast doubt on the linear nonthreshold model often used when discussing the risk of low-dose radiation. Russ Hobbie and I discuss this model in Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.
In dealing with radiation to the population at large, or to populations of radiation workers, the policy of the various regulatory agencies has been to adopt the linear-nonthreshold (LNT) model to extrapolate from what is known about the excess risk of cancer at moderately high doses and high dose rates, to low doses, including those below natural background.
We also consider other ideas, such as a threshold model for radiation effects and even hormesis, the idea that very low doses of radiation may be beneficial. The controversy over the biological effects of low-dose radiation is fascinating, but as best I can tell the validity of each of these models remains uncertain; getting accurate data when measuring tiny effects is difficult. I assume this is what motivates the word “may” in the phrase “may be nonexistent” from the position statement (although, I hasten to add, I have no inside information about the intent of the authors of the position statement—I’m just guessing). In our book, Russ and I come to a conclusion that is fairly consistent with the AAPM position statement.
Some investigators feel that there is evidence for a threshold dose, and that the LNT model overestimates the risk [Kathren (1996); Kondo (1993); Cohen (2002)]. Mossman (2001) argues against hormesis but agrees that the LNT model has led to ‘enormous problems in radiation protection practice’ and unwarranted fears about radiation.
Although I find the AAPM position statement to have a slightly condescending tone, I applaud it primarily as an antidote for those “unwarranted fears about radiation.” My impression is that many in the general public have a fear of the word radiation that borders on the irrational, stemming from a lack of knowledge about the basic physics governing how radiation interacts with tissue, and a poor understanding of risk analysis. I hope the AAPM position statement (and, immodestly, our textbook) helps change those concerns from irrational fears to reasoned and fact-based assessment. I would not discourage analysis of public safety, but I definitely encourage an intelligent and scientific analysis.

1 comment:

  1. Risk and bioeffects from ultrasound exposure might be a good addition for the future edition.