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Any amount of radiation, no matter how small, has harmful effects on life, according to a new meta-analysis of 46 peer-reviewed studies published over 40 years.

Two researchers, one from the University of South Carolina and the other from the University of Paris-Sud, combed through studies of locations around the world that have very high natural background radiation. Their findings could have huge implications for medical imaging as well as nuclear power plants, airport security scanners, and even air travel itself.

Timothy Mousseau, PhD, a professor of biological sciences at South Carolina, said pooling the individual studies created a database large enough that statistically significant effects emerged. The conclusion:

There is no threshold below which there are no effects of radiation. A theory that has been batted around a lot over the last couple of decades is the idea that there is a threshold of exposure below which there are no negative consequences. These data provide fairly strong evidence that there is no threshold—radiation effects are measurable as far down as you can go, given the statistical power you have at hand.

Dr. Mousseau was quoted in a South Carolina news release. He and co-author Anders Moeller published their findings online last week in Biological Reviews.

The authors focused on 46 papers that each examined both a control group and a more highly irradiated population and quantified the radiation levels for each.

The researchers found a broad range of significant negative effects in, among other things, immune responses, physiology, mutation rates, and disease occurrence. “When you do the meta-analysis, you do see significant negative effects,” Dr. Mousseau said.

That has enormous real-world implications, as he pointed out:

If we see effects at these low levels, then we have to be thinking differently about how we develop regulations for exposures and especially intentional exposures to populations, like the emissions from nuclear power plants, medical procedures, and even some X-ray machines at airports.

Proponents of airport X-ray security scanners say the machines expose travelers to very small amounts of radiation—less than they’ll receive from the airplane flight itself (because planes soar above much of the atmosphere that shields us from cosmic radiation).

But that means airlines know they’re exposing passengers to extra radiation. We can guarantee that some enterprising lawyers, class-action dollar signs dancing in their heads, are already looking for cancer patients who are frequent fliers.

If a radiologic tech gets cancer, will the class-action machinery crank up? Will techs and anyone else who works near X-ray or CT machines be given new shielding or other protections? Will patients be required to sign waivers before getting scans? Will defensive medicine—ordering extra scans just to protect yourself from lawsuits—actually make a physician MORE vulnerable to a lawsuit?

Since Wilhelm Roentgen discovered X-rays in 1895, awareness of their effects and concomitant safety procedures have advanced roughly in tandem. We expect more safeguards, and soon.

Related seminar: ALARA – CT (As Low As Reasonably Achievable)


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  1. Science : d'après une méta-étude, le premier Becquerel est bel et bien dangereux on November 18th, 2012 at 12:42 pm

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