Millions of Americans, especially children, are needlessly getting dangerous radiation from "super X-rays" that raise the risk of cancer and are increasingly used to diagnose medical problems, a new report warns.
In a few decades, as many as 2 percent of all cancers in the United States might be due to radiation from CT scans given now, according to the authors of the report.
Some experts say that estimate is overly alarming. But they agree with the need to curb these tests particularly in children, who are more susceptible to radiation and more likely to develop cancer from it.
"There are some serious concerns about the methodology used," but the authors "have brought to attention some real serious potential public health issues," said Dr. Arl Van Moore, head of the American College of Radiology's board of chancellors.
The risk from a single CT, or computed tomography, scan to an individual is small. But "we are very concerned about the built-up public health risk over a long period of time," said Eric J. Hall, who wrote the report with fellow Columbia University medical physicist David J. Brenner.
It was published in today's New England Journal of Medicine and paid for by federal grants.
The average American's total radiation exposure has nearly doubled since 1980, largely because of CT scans.
A study by the same scientists in 2001 led the federal Food and Drug Administration to recommend ways to limit scans and risks in children.
But CT use continued to soar. About 62 million scans were done in the U.S. last year, up from 3 million in 1980. More than 4 million were in children.
Since previous studies suggest that a third of all diagnostic tests are unnecessary, that means that 20 million adults and more than 1 million children getting CT scans are needlessly being put at risk, Brenner and Hall write.
Ultrasound and MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, scans often are safer options that do not expose people to radiation, they contend.
CT scans became popular because they offer a quick, relatively cheap and painless way to get 3D pictures so detailed they give an almost surgical view into the body.
But they put out a lot of radiation. A CT scan of the chest involves 10 to 15 millisieverts (a measure of dose) versus 0.01 to 0.15 for a regular chest X-ray, 3 for a mammogram and a mere 0.005 for a dental X-ray.