Radiation: Once Again Ballyhooed As Safe … Until Oops!

It’s always the same thing: for decades they tell us that there is no problem with radiation from x-ray equipment or other sources because the doses are so minuscule and so infrequent that it would be like…. Then they come up with some hoary example, such as “a 42-minute walk outside,” an example I will get back to in a moment. Decades later, after millions of gullible or option-less people have been exposed to it on a regular basis, a new study comes out linking that very type of radiation and those very doses to some nasty disease.

It happened again—with Dental x-rays and risk of meningioma, a study published today in the American Cancer Society’s online journal Cancer. Meningioma is the most common tumor in the brain and central nervous system, representing 33.8% of all brain tumors in the US adult population. The tumor is “associated with neurologic complications” that may include memory loss, hearing loss, vision problems, seizures, and weakness in arms and legs. According to the study, “The primary environmental risk factor consistently identified for meningioma is exposure to ionizing radiation.”

It has been known for a long time that high levels of ionizing radiation—such as exposure to nuclear bombs or certain types of cancer treatments—multiply the risk of getting meningioma by six to ten times. But little research has been done on the lower doses that the general public is exposed to. Now the first large-scale study determined that the very dental x-rays ballyhooed for decades as safe are not: yearly bitewing x-rays double the risk of meningioma, and yearly panorex examinations produce five times the risk. Now they tell us!

It’s a growing problem. Other medical imaging procedures that use ionizing radiation have sextupled since the early 1980s, and their doses of radiation are usually much higher. A conundrum of weighing risks and benefits, if there are even any discernible benefits…. Because there is now another source of exposure to ionizing radiation. It’s new, and it too has been ballyhooed as safe—this time by the TSA: backscatter x-ray scanners at airport security checkpoints.

The scientific community acknowledges that backscatter x-rays cause cancer, though they argue over the risks, which are between small and tiny. With backscatter x-rays, the energy is concentrated on the skin and the tissue directly under it, rather than being absorbed by the entire body. Thus, concentrations are much higher on the surface of the body. The TSA says that’s no big deal, that during a 42-minute walk outside, you’re exposed to as much radiation. The doses are so minuscule, it says, that they pose no health hazard. Like dental x-rays. So, no problem.

But they were banned in the EU. The European Commission, in its press release about new rules concerning security scanners at European airports, included this illuminating paragraph:

In order not to risk jeopardising citizens’ health and safety, only security scanners which do not use x-ray technology are added to the list of authorised methods for passenger screening at EU airports. All other technologies, such as that used for mobiles phones and others, can be used provided that they comply with EU security standards.

Ionizing radiation from backscatter x-ray scanners has been shown to damage DNA and cause cancer. From there, it’s just statistics. Put a number on this small to tiny risk and multiply it by many billions—the number of people that pass through these scanners over many years. The product will be the number of people who will get cancer from these scanners. That number will still be small. But it represents real people who will get real cancer.

Yet, unlike dental x-rays, there is an alternative technology: millimeter-wave scanners, which rely on radio waves. Both technologies have limits: turbans, casts, prosthetics, etc. But one causes cancer, the other doesn’t. Those are the risks. The benefits: they’re doubtlessly effective at nailing people who’re trying to smuggle their favorite craft brew on board. And they’re supposed to catch terrorists but haven’t had a chance to do that yet.

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