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When Sheri Diehl, a Chicago-area flight attendant, gotand finally stayedpregnant after four miscarriages in the 1990s, she contacted her supervisor and asked to stop flying immediately. Diehl and her fellow flight attendants had long wondered Could there be unknown health risks for frequent fliers? But they recently found worrying signs that radiation exposure is on the rise, thanks largely to the popularity of high-tech medical exams like CT scans.
A typical, full-body CT scan (often used in emergency rooms to check for internal injuries after car accidents) can emit 200 to 250 times as much radiation as a chest X-ray.
This means putting off radiating medical scans, if theyre not medically necessary, is always good for you because radiation can damage cell DNAand that damage can lead to cancer years down the road.
Its true that your body can repair the damage or the cell may simply die.
“Most often the benefits of such tests and treatments outweigh the risks,” says Henry Royal, MD, a professor of radiology at Washington University in St. But getting a mammo before age 40 or having more than one per year carries higher risks and should be avoided unless your personal risk factors are high.
The same goes for DEXA scans, a low-radiation scan for evaluating bone density and catching signs of osteoporosis. Preventive Services Task Force, a standards-setting body, uses age 65 as the starting point for DEXA scans, unless theres a history of bone fractures or high risk of osteoporosis.
warned that up to one-third of all CT scans may be medically unnecessaryand that 20 million Americans may be radiated unnecessarily every year.
With some 65 million CTs performed annually in the United States, study authors David Brenner, Ph D, and Eric Hall, Ph D, of Columbia University Medical Center in New York City suggested that up to 2% of all future cancers may be caused by radiation from CTs.
But the earlier you get radiated, the more opportunity there is for uncorrected errors to start cropping up in your DNA.
Know your radiation footprint To understand whats typical and how radiation adds up, remember this number: 3 m Sv.
For the general public, its about what you get from background radiation3 m Sv per year.
But if you need a medical exam (or several exams), the acceptable limit is as high as 20 m Sv per year.
Weigh the risks At some time in your life, of course, youll likely need a radiation-based medical treatment or diagnostic test.