Consumer Reports Discovers Dangers Of CT Scans And X-RaysDecember 2015
By William Faloon
The March 2015 issue of Consumer Reports published an in-depth article about the cancer-causing effects of medical X-rays and CT scans. The title of this Consumer Reports article is:
“The Surprising Dangers Of CT Scans And X-rays.”1
We applaud Consumer Reports for publishing this expose. It will save human lives. We’re taken aback, however, as to why the word “surprising” was used in the title.
There’s nothing surprising about the striking number of cancer deaths caused by medical imaging procedures like CT scans. These imaging devices emit high amounts of ionizing radiation that damage DNA and create mutations that can lead to cancer.
The National Cancer Institute estimates that at least 15,000 cancer deaths will occur as a result of CT scans performed in 2007.2,3
This same report estimates 29,000 new cancer cases occurred in 2007 alone from CT scan exposure. Since exposure to radiation-emitting imaging procedures has risen approximately 6-fold4 since 1980, the number of excess cancers being caused is potentially astronomical.
What may have prompted Consumer Reports to publish their article was a recent study that looked at people who had CT scans as children and then followed them for almost 10 years. This study found a 24% increased cancer risk from just one CT scan, with each additional CT scan boosting cancer risk an additional 16%. Cancer risk was greater with a younger age of exposure.5 While overall cancer rates in this group were low, the statistical significance was robust, meaning these frightening increases in cancer rates are unlikely to have occurred by chance.
Our earlier warnings about the dangers of radiation from medical diagnostic procedures like CT scans were ridiculed and largely ignored. We hope that the Consumer Reports’ investigative analysis will encourage more patients to stand up to their doctors and question the necessity of exposing their body to cancer-causing radiation. As you’ll read in this article, many X-rays and CT scans performed today should not be done.
There is not a topic I have more hotly debated with physicians than the danger posed by ionizing radiation emitted from CT scans and X-ray imaging devices.
On a personal level, every doctor I have ever argued this point with has stated that CT scans and X-rays are 100% safe. I rarely violate rules of debate by stating that someone is categorically wrong, but I have never stepped back from declaring that exposing one’s healthy cells to ionizing radiation from medical diagnostic imaging (like CT scans) increases cancer risk.
Life Extension® long ago published the frightening numbers of Americans who are contracting cancer as a result of prior CT scans or X-ray exposure. Medical authorities are now somewhat aware of this data, yet few who prescribe CT scans or X-ray imaging are paying attention to it.
One-Third Of Radiation Scans Are Unnecessary
Each year, there are 72 million CT scans performed in the United States.6 This is up from 3 million in 1980 when CT scans began to be aggressively marketed to doctors.7 CT scans provide superior imaging compared to conventional X-rays, but at the cost of vastly higher doses of ionizing radiation.7
A recent report found that as many as one-third of CT scans and other diagnostics that expose patients to high levels of radiation are being done too frequently.7 We at Life Extension® believe that more than a third of radiation-emitting imaging procedures could be eliminated.
One obstacle we battle when it comes to this debate is physician prescribing practices that are very difficult to change. Doctors were taught in school that radiation from medical diagnostic imaging was very safe and posed no long-term risk to their patients. Throughout their residency and into practice, the idea that ionizing radiation from medical diagnostic imaging is safe, and does not increase long-term cancer risk, is consistently reinforced to physicians, often by radiologists. In addition, physicians are often in the practice of defensive medicine, and order unnecessary imaging tests born out of the fear of litigation.
Especially worrisome is the fact that some physicians have a financial investment in the very medical diagnostic imaging centers to which patients are referred.
Consumer Reports magazine now urges patients to ask if their doctor has a financial interest in a diagnostic imaging center. It should not come as a surprise that when physicians invest in a CT scanner or other radiology equipment, they then have a financial incentive to refer more of their patients for CT scans and other imaging tests.
Consumer Reports urges all patients to question their doctor when a CT scan or X-ray is ordered, as some problems can be managed without powerful doses of radiation.8
Widespread Ignorance Of The Dangers
Consumer Reports conducted a survey and found that only 4% of patients prescribed a CT scan had the knowledge to say “no” to their doctor.1 This prompted one enlightened doctor to state that patients need to take the lead in questioning whether a CT scan or X-ray is necessary.
A 2012 study was done of medical personnel who worked with patients undergoing abdominal CT scans (which often emit the most radiation). This study found that less than 50% understood that these scans could cause cancer.9
Another study revealed only 9% of emergency room physicians said they knew that CT scans increased cancer risk.10
This widespread ignorance amongst professionals on the front lines of medical care is alarming.
Until doctors get up to speed on the risks posted by radiation-emitting imaging devices, patients need to assert control and not capitulate to the exaggerated fears doctors instill to persuade patients to undergo unnecessary CT scans, X-rays, or other diagnostic imaging procedures involving ionizing radiation.
Defending Against Lawsuits
A study presented at the 2011 meeting of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons provided clear evidence of why CT scans and other medical diagnostic imaging tests are being so over utilized.
It turns out that 35% of imaging tests are being done by doctors out of fear of lawsuits.1,11-13 In other words, if sued by a patient (and zealous personal injury attorney) for malpractice, doctors need hard evidence showing the patient was aggressively diagnosed, as well as treated.
How To Reduce Radiation Exposure From Medical Diagnostic Tests
A partial solution to the widespread overexposure to ionizing radiation is to turn down the amount of radiation emitted from each scan. This can be done because most modern CT scanners can be intensity modulated. This means the dose of radiation needed to obtain a crisp picture of your insides can be greatly reduced based on your body mass and other factors.14
What hurried X-ray technicians have done too frequently is set the dose of radiation at the highest level for all patients, thereby eliminating the time needed to adjust the radiation dose to conform to each individual. This ensures great consistent images at the cost of many times the radiation dose required for most people. As a patient, you should insist that if a CT scan is needed, your body mass be evaluated and the lowest possible dose of radiation be used to obtain the needed images.15,16
A particularly disturbing trend pointed out by Consumer Reports is that children are too often being given adult-sized doses of radiation, which is many times what they need.1 The higher dose directly increases the child’s cancer risk, yet rushed radiology technicians don’t want to bother turning down the radiation intensity. The pressure to put patients on a fast-moving assembly line, with little regard for individualized care, is epidemic throughout today’s hurried and increasingly depersonalized world of mainstream medical practice.
Modern Imaging Saves Lives!
It is important to point out that CT scans save more lives than the cancers they cause.14 The problem is they are being overused and wrongly used in too many cases.
For many diagnostics, ultrasound devices can provide a clear internal image while emitting no ionizing radiation.17-19 MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) often provides a clearer picture than a CT scan for soft tissue,20 but since MRIs cost much more, insurance companies increasingly are refusing to pay for them.21
Those who display outward symptoms of a stroke should insist on an immediate CT scan of their brain so that comprehensive stroke-reversal therapies can be promptly administered to reduce the risk of paralysis or death. CT scans can be done instantly compared to the much longer time it takes for magnetic resonance techniques. (Some hospital ER rooms are equipped to do quick MRI scans for stroke patients.)
When compared to the perils and pain of exploratory surgery, a CT scan is a breakthrough that should be utilized when appropriate.
For cancer patients, the use of multiple whole-body PET/CT scans with enhanced reading techniques provides enormous insight into whether treatments are working or need adjustment. For treatment of difficult and aggressive cancers, the long-term risk from exposure to the radiation from PET/CT scanners is less than the immediate risk posed by the aggressive cancer.22,23
My Pain Of Saying No To Dentists
Dentists are adamant about doing annual X-rays and represent the strongest proponents of prophylactic X-rays. Not one dentist I have encountered has ever acknowledged there is any risk posed by these annual X-rays.
I have refused dental X-rays for most of my life despite dire warnings by my dentists that there could be underlying tooth decay. When I developed some pain in my mouth two years ago, I consented to dental X-rays. No abnormality was revealed.
I then went to a medical specialist who said he could prescribe a CT scan of my entire jaw that might detect what was causing my considerable pain. This doctor also cautioned that some people develop a condition called idiopathic oral facial pain in which no underlying cause is detected by a CT scan. (Idiopathic means a disease of unknown origin.)
I declined the CT scan of my jaw and suffered fluctuating pain for almost a year and a half until the pain became so acute that I went back to the dentist for another dental X-ray, which this time revealed a single decayed tooth that was readily treated.
Had I opted for the CT scan, this decaying tooth would have likely been detected much earlier. Of course, very vulnerable parts of my head and neck would have also been exposed to high levels of radiation from the CT scan (much greater than typical dental X-rays).
So I paid a painful price for declining the CT scan of my jaw. I always like to relate real-world events so that readers understand the challenges of determining when to say “no” to a radiation-emitting imaging device. It’s not always an easy decision.
Are Dental X-Rays Safe?
My dentist makes me sign a waiver of liability because I refuse to have annual X-rays done. Other dentists refuse to treat me unless I capitulate to X-rays whenever they want to do them. There, of course, is considerable clinical value in dentists being able to view under your enamel.
My concern about dental X-rays was partially vindicated when a 2012 study published in the journal Cancer showed that people exposed to annual dental X-rays were twice as likely to develop a brain tumor called a meningioma.38 This type of tumor is usually benign and can be treated with radiation or surgery if needed, but who wants to go through this?
Modern dental X-rays emit less radiation than older devices, and thus may not pose as great a risk for meningioma. However, the authors concluded their 2012 study by warning:
“…there is little evidence to support the use of dental X-rays ‘ in search of occult pathoses in the asymptomatic patient’ or ‘routine dental radiographs at preset intervals for all patients. Although dental X-rays are an important tool in well-selected patients, efforts to moderate exposure to ionizing radiation to the head is likely to be of benefit to patients and health care providers alike.’”38
Said differently, these authors are suggesting that one minimize the number of dental X-rays they are exposed to, which contradicts what is being done in most dentist practices today.
Reducing And Repairing DNA Damage Inflicted By Radiation
When I reviewed the number of previous articles we have published about the dangers of ionizing radiation from medical imaging tests and CT scans, I was startled by how much hard data we had uncovered.
Some of our articles describe the potential protection one might obtain by having high doses of specific antioxidants in their body at the time a radiation-emitting imaging procedure is performed.39 Other articles describe the potential for nutrients like blueberry extract to enhance DNA repair so that damage inflicted by medical radiation does not lead to future cancer.40
Some of you might remember an article I wrote last year about a strain of bacteria that was made resistant to 1,000 times the amount of radiation that would kill a human. The mechanism that enabled these bacteria to survive this onslaught of radiation-induced free radical attack was markedly enhanced DNA repair.41,42
The data about the radiation-protecting effects of the nutrients that many of you take daily continues to grow. This means that even if you have needed a CT scan or diagnostic X-ray procedure in the past, if you had these nutrients in your body, you may have gained some degree of protection. Regular intake of blueberry and other plant extracts may have facilitated enough DNA repair to offset the known carcinogenic effects of the radiation. No one knows for certain.
In this month’s issue, we describe some nutrients you want to have in your body prior to being exposed to a radiation-emitting imaging procedure.
I want to again thank Consumer Reports for disseminating information that is almost identical to what we’ve been preaching for decades. While the mainstream media ignores most of what we publish, the Consumer Reports article generated press coverage that I believe will spare some humans from medical radiation-induced cancers.
For longer life,
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- Based on the assumption of an average “effective dose” from chest x ray (PA film) of 0.02 mSv.
- Based on the assumption of an average “effective dose” from natural background radiation of 3 mSv per year in the United States.