The Invisible Rays: What You Can’t See Can Hurt You

By: Sophie Shulman  |  February 15, 2018

You are sitting in the dentist’s chair with your mouth full of plastic, and suddenly all of the staff take cover and retreat to the safety of another room, leaving you there to wonder, “What about me?” X-ray radiation has high risks and to determine just how high that risk factor is, we must explore the following questions: how often one is exposed to radiation, how much radiation one is exposed to, what area of the body is exposed to the radiation, and what is the age of the person exposed to the radiation?

People who work with radiation are exposed to it on a daily basis and will wear shielding equipment, and monitor for excess radiation. Many radiation technicians monitor their exposure by wearing a film badge which turns black when it is exposed to higher levels of radiation. There has also been research showing the effects of high amounts of radiation, as seen in workers who lived through atomic blasts. Dentists, radiologists and technicians on the other hand, are working with much lower dosages on a daily basis. Researchers have discovered that medical staff dealing with radiation before the 1950s had a high risk of developing leukemia and other cancers, but more recently it has been found to have no risks, as people in the field have been taking greater precautions. However, people working with radiation should still be mindful because in new radiation practices, such as fluoroscopy, the risks are still unclear.

Most medical x-ray procedures use low doses of radiation, which are comparable to the amount of background radiation that we are exposed to within the period of a few days. Background radiation is all around us. It is in our soil, air and buildings. It comes from cosmic radiation that penetrates our earth’s atmosphere. Higher altitudes on Earth are exposed to higher amounts of background radiation. For example, Denver, which has a high elevation, has higher amounts of radiation exposure. When a person is outdoors, the wavelengths don’t impact them because the wavelengths have a high energy, and will therefore go right through the person. When a person is indoors in areas of higher elevation such as Denver, they will absorb more of the x-rays, because the energy is slowed down by the walls of the building. We use this knowledge to treat cancers. When a person has a cancer that is inside their body, they are treated with x-rays that have high energies, so that they  will go right into the body. If they are being treated for an external cancer such as skin cancer, they can put a shield in front of them to block the path of the x-rays, which will slow down the waves, causing them to hit the the skin.

Another risk factor is the area that the x-rays are directed towards. Dental x-rays have less of an impact than chest x-rays, because the area is smaller and more localized. There are some parts of our bodies which are more sensitive to radiation than others. Whenever a person receives an x-ray, there is always a bit of scatter that doesn’t go exactly where it is directed towards. Because of the possibility of x-ray scatter, it is important to be careful when imaging sensitive locations. Of course, with today’s technology and advanced machinery, the amount of scatter is very small.

Younger people are more susceptible to the risks of radiation. Fetuses in particular are at high risk. Radiation is also more likely to form cell damage in human embryo, newborn and child cells. Radiation has been found to only have an impact when it passes a certain threshold. Embryonic cells are the most sensitive, which is why extra precaution is given to pregnant women who receive x-rays. Adult cells are more specific in function, and copy themselves at a slower rate than children’s cells, so we do not want to expose the children’s cells to anything which might cause damage and spread rapidly.

While there are risks, it is important to put these risks  into perspective. The risks come when there is a high dosage for a repeated amount of time. However, we must recognize that most people are not exposed to those levels of radiation. In addition, there are also safety measures that are taken, including the use of screens which cover the parts of the body which do not require imaging. Imaging plays a significant role in the diagnosis and treatment of disease. The advances in medicine and science is incredible–and x-rays have done so much to further our knowledge and advancement.