X-rays, Gamma Rays, and Cancer Risk

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Can I avoid exposure to radiation from x-rays and gamma rays?

Not entirely. Just living on this planet exposes you to some radiation. You can, however, limit your exposure to some sources of radiation, such as x-rays from imaging tests, radiation in the workplace, and radon in your home.

Radiation from imaging tests

In recent years, the average amount of radiation a person is exposed to from medical tests has risen. This is of particular concern for children, because their growing bodies are especially sensitive to radiation.

The increased risk of cancer from exposure to any single test is likely to be very small. But radiation exposure from all sources can add up over one’s lifetime, so imaging tests that use radiation should only be done if there is a good medical reason to do so. The usefulness of the test must always be balanced against the possible risks from exposure to the radiation. In some cases, other imaging tests that don’t use radiation such as ultrasound or MRI may be an option. But if there is a reason to believe that an x-ray or CT scan is the best way to look for cancer or other diseases, the patient will most likely be helped more than the small dose of radiation can hurt.

If you do need to have a test that will expose you to some radiation, ask if there are ways to shield the parts of your body that aren’t being imaged from being exposed. For example, a lead apron can sometimes be used to protect parts of your chest or abdomen from getting radiation, and a lead collar (known as a thyroid shield or thyroid collar) can be used to protect your thyroid gland.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “The best way to protect yourself from excessive radiation from x-rays is to make sure the technician performing the procedure has the proper qualifications, and to simply ask questions. You might inquire about the necessity of having an x-ray, or receive assurance the x-ray machine has been inspected recently and that it is properly calibrated. You should be aware of steps taken to prevent exposures to other parts of your body (for example, through the use of a lead apron).”

For children, the Alliance for Radiation Safety in Pediatric Imaging (also called the Image Gently Alliance) recommends that parents ask questions before their children have tests such as a CT scan to make sure that the facility adjusts the radiation doses for children. They also recommend asking if the facility is accredited in CT by the American College of Radiology.

For more detailed information about radiation doses from imaging tests in adults, see our document Imaging (Radiology) Tests.

Radiation in the workplace

In the US, a number of federal agencies are charged with protecting workers from radiation exposure, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Department of Energy. Each agency is responsible for a different set of workplaces, but all follow the same general principles. If you work someplace where radiation exposure is likely, your employer can tell you which agency sets the standards for your workplace.

In general, employers cannot allow employees to be exposed to levels of radiation over a certain (low) limit without informing them of the risks. They also must take steps to monitor the level of exposure and make sure that the exposure stays below certain limits. Workers can do their part by learning about the risks and following safety procedures, which may include using protective clothing and equipment.

Radon

For most people, the largest potential source of radon exposure is in the home. You can check radon levels in your home, either with do-it-yourself kits or by hiring a professional. If the levels are high, there are steps you can take to try to lower them.

For more information, see our document Radon.


Last Medical Review: 05/02/2013
Last Revised: 04/18/2014