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Radiation, risk, and sources of exposure

With the Japanese emergency at Fukushima nuclear power plant still in the headlines, radiation exposure is on the minds of many. The United States Environmental Protection Agency have several air monitors that have detected low levels of radioactive material in the US, said to be due to the defective nuclear reactors in Japan. Although this finding is not surprising, according to the EPA, and the levels are not high enough to be a reason for alarm, it is a timely moment to talk about the common ways we are exposed to radiation and whether or not it affects our health.

We are exposed to radiation from a number of sources. Naturally occurring sources include radon, cosmic radiation, and radiation naturally present in our body or in the earth. There are also manmade sources which are primarily medical and include CT scans and x-rays. Although the results are mixed, as published in a 2010 journal article in the Journal of the American College of Radiology, some researchers and scientists think exposure to even low doses of radiation, such as that from medical tests, can cause health problems and put one at higher risk for cancer. Epidemiologic studies have not confirmed this, perhaps due to small sample size, lack of lifelong data, and the fact that other agents are cancer inducing. But given findings by The National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements that Americans received seven times the exposure to radiation in 2006 than in 1980, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has drawn attention to the issue.

In 2010, the NIH implemented a policy to mandate tracking of radiation exposure in patients and enter it into their electronic medical records. This policy also includes the requirement that sites give patients access to their own health records. This is in line with the Radiological Society of North America’s recommendation that patients keep track of their personal x-ray history.

The NIH policy gives patients a tool in which to advocate for their own health. When a physician orders a test, perhaps more patients will communicate to their doctor about risks vs. benefits and the necessity of radiation imaging testing given their particular situation.

Will being able to view personal medical records that list cumulative radiation exposure encourage patients to communicate with their physicians about future exposure and health risks? Is patient-provider communication surrounding radiation exposure something that should be encouraged?