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Children often exposed to imaging tests with radiation that could lead to cancer

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

A new study shows children in a study frequently received medical imaging tests using radiation that could lead to cancer later.

According to researchers at University of Michigan Health System, medical tests such as X-rays and CT scans pose health risks to children who are more sensitive than adults to radiation.

In a study of 355,088 children under the age of 18, the scientists tracked the frequency of imaging procedures, finding that 42.5 percent received at least one of the diagnostic tests. Many of the children in the study were exposed to multiple diagnostic imaging studies that utilize radiation.

Adam L. Dorfman, M.D., clinical assistant professor of pediatrics and communicable diseases and of radiology at the U-M Medical School says, “Imaging tests are a critical component of good medical care, but the high number of tests raises questions about whether we are being judicious in our use of the technology.”

He adds more awareness is needed from parents and heath care providers to protect children who are frequently given medical imaging tests that use radiation.

For the study, the researchers looked at X-rays that use low doses of radiation and CT scans that deliver higher doses. The findings showed the average child studied would have received 7 imaging studies by age 18.

The authors note there is much awareness about environmental exposure to radiation and the health hazards to children, but less attention has been given to the hazards of medical imaging tests, perhaps because of limited data.

The scientists are studying the doses of radiation children received that was not part of the current study because of limited data.

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Dr. Dorfman notes another limitation is that the appropriateness of the tests could not be determined. He says, “What we’ve tried to do is raise awareness of the issue and start a national dialogue by identifying the overall scope of the problem.”

“The next step is to better understand when these tests really add value to the care of a child and when they do not,” Dorfman says.

Kimberly E. Applegate, M.D., vice chair for Quality and Safety in the Department of Radiology at Emory University says, “We have to be smarter about how we use tests. For example, children don’t always need the same radiation dose during a CT scan to get the same quality of image and information.”

Dr. Applegate is a member of the international Image Gently Campaign whose goal is to protect children from radiation by raising awareness and developing strategies for minimizing exposure.

She also notes medical imaging tests are life saving..."so our study doesn’t suggest at all that these tests shouldn’t be used in children.”

The study authors say medical imaging tests that use radiation should be delivered to children based on ALARA, an acronym for As Low As Reasonably Achievable, advocated by the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The findings that 8% of the children in the study received a CT scan during the 3-year study, and 3.5% had more than one, raises concerns about the health hazards of diagnostic imaging tests that could increase the chances of future cancer.

Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. Published online January 3, 2011. doi:10.1001/archpediatrics.2010.270