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Cancer and managed radiation exposure

Few people even consider that standardized health exams may actually be making them sick. But the fact of the matter is, these routine tests, such as CT scans and X-rays, could be contributing to cancer risk.

According to a recent report, Americans receive more medical radiation exposure than any other nation in the world. In recent decades, that exposure has greatly increased.

Radiation is a hidden danger because it can't be felt or seen. The only time a person can realize something is wrong is several years later if the radiation contributes to cancer or another malady. Many people do not even know how much radiation they have been exposed to during medical treatment. Some doctors and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration want device makers to print the radiation dose on each X-ray or other image so patients and doctors can see how much was given.

It's difficult to say just how much radiation from medical testing is bad for the body. For comparison, during the Chernobyl disaster and studies of Japanese people affected by atomic bombs, individuals had excessive cancer risk after exposures of 50 to 150 millisieverts, which is the unit of measurement for radiation. According to data from a June 2010 Associate press story, "A chest or abdominal CT scan involves 10 to 20 millisieverts, versus 0.01 to 0.1 for an ordinary chest X-ray, less than one for a mammogram, and as little as 0.005 for a dental X-ray. Natural radiation from the sun and soil accounts for about two millisieverts a year."

It is estimated that routine medical testing accounts for exposure to about 20 millisieverts a year for most Americans. After only 2 to 3 years, the average person would be at a high risk for cancer from these tests.

Those concerned about radiation exposure from medical tests should question their doctors about the necessity for tests and find out if another test can be used in its place. For example, MRIs do not use any radiation at all; the image is formed with the use of magnets. Patients should also proactively keep track of their testing to alert others if it seems like too many radiation tests are being ordered.

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