Swimming In A Deadly Sea: Awash In Radiation
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Kathleen Deoul: Of course few of us are likely to experience the type of radiation that the residents of Chernobyl did.
Copulos: Hopefully, none of us will. But you don't need a nuclear accident to be over-exposed. Too many X-rays or radiation treatments can be a problem if they aren't monitored properly. One real problem in this regard can arise when someone is seeing multiple doctors - even for minor illnesses. Each doctor will have his own file on each patient they see. The trouble is that the only place comprehensive records are likely to exist is at your insurer or HMO. So, each of your physicians may be unaware of X-rays ordered by your other health care providers. While this still might not pose a problem, if multiple radiological studies are ordered, say an upper and lower GI study, a series of chest X-rays and a cardiac catherization, your level of exposure could creep up. The key is to inform your physician of any recent X-ray procedures so he is aware of them.
Kathleen Deoul: It's easy to see how being exposed to a high dose of radiation can be harmful, but what about a series of small to moderate doses over time like the multiple X-ray procedures you describe?
Copulos: Let's look at moderate exposures first. These can occur to individuals as a result of an industrial accident, faulty X-ray equipment or environmental exposure as happened with the observers of above-ground nuclear tests and residents of communities near nuclear fuel facilities where the groundwater became contaminated by radiological materials leaking from storage tanks.
One problem with the health effects of moderate exposures to ionizing radiation is that they take months and often years to manifest. This is called the "latency period." For example in the case of Leukemia, the latency period is at least two years. For solid tumors it is five years. Other health effects can take even longer to show up. Moreover, the effects may not be evident in the individual who is exposed, but rather in their offspring. Radiation can damage DNA and lead to birth defects and even cancer in the exposed individual's children.
Kathleen Deoul: But what about the example you used of someone who has multiple X-rays over an extended period of time.
Copulos: That is what is called "chronic exposure." The Environmental Protection Agency defines chronic exposure as the continuous or intermittent exposure to low levels of radiation over a long period of time. Don't be lulled into complacency by the fact that it involves low levels or can be intermittent. It is still hazardous. Chronic exposure can cause genetic effects, cancer, precancerous lesions, benign tumors, cataracts, skin changes and genetic defects. Indeed, Marie Curie, who along with her husband Pierre discovered Radium eventually succumbed to Leukemia as a consequence of chronic radiation exposure.
Swimming In A Deadly Sea:
Awash In Radiation
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Kathleen Deoul, Media Matters