Last month's report published in the British Medical Journal may be giving x-ray technicians and doctors reason to hesitate before ordering diagnostic radiation. The recent study of children in The United Kingdom (England and Wales) examined childhood cancer risks associated with exposure to x-rays and ultrasound scans both in utero and early infancy (age zero to 100 days)

In the study, Preetha Rajaraman, PhD, of the U.S. National Cancer Institute and her colleagues studied 2,690 children with cancer and 4,858 healthy children to determine whether or not exposure to radiation was linked to childhood cancer.

Results showed a slightly increased risk of developing leukemia and childhood cancers including lymphoma and central nervous system tumors in children born to mothers who underwent x-ray procedures during pregnancy. Infants exposed to an x-ray examination at least once, were also found to have an increased but statistically insignificant risk of having childhood cancers as well. (Overall, the stronger risk of cancer was associated with children exposed to radiation in utero versus infants who received x-ray scans.)

The researchers also analyzed the effects of ultrasound in pregnant women and on infants but did not find any link to cancer.

According to the report, the findings indicate possible risks of cancer from radiation at doses lower than those associated with commonly used procedures such as computed tomography, or CT, scans.

What You Need to Know About Diagnostic Radiation

X-rays are an invisible form of radiation that makes "pictures" of the bones and organs and can be used on any part of the body. But they can also do damage.

They expose people to radiation which may injure or damage cells when it unintentionally creates radicals in susceptible cells. The susceptible cells may break or modify chemical bonds within important molecules. Blood forming, reproductive, and digestive organs are most sensitive to the biological effects of x-ray radiation.

In addition, x-rays: 

  • Contain lower doses of radiation compared to the levels received from a CT scan. Long considered the gold standard for diagnosing many diseases, CT scans generate a three-dimensional image of a body part. (Radiography is another type of x-ray which generates a two-dimensional image. A mammography is radiography of the breast.)
  • Are regulated by both the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and state governments. Current regulations require a variety of safety devices be built into x-ray instruments that make accidental exposure to the hands, arms, and facial areas unlikely.

How to Protect Yourself

Guard against unnecessary exposure by taking these steps recommended by the FDA:

Be sure the x-ray is necessary. Ask your healthcare professional questions about why an x-ray is being recommended and whether or not other lower-risk procedures—such as an ultrasound or MRI (Magnetic Reasoning Imaging)—might be viable options.

Don't refuse an x-ray. If your healthcare professional explains why it's medically necessary, the risk of not having a needed x-ray is greater than the small risk from radiation.

Though most ask as part of the routine, be sure to tell the x-ray technologist in advance if you are, or might be, pregnant.

If possible, wear a lead apron or other protective shield.

Know your x-ray history. These days switching doctors is a common occurrence. To avoid unnecessary duplication, keep a list of your imaging records—including dental X-rays.

The Federal Drug Administration

The U.S. National Institutes of Health (The National Cancer Institute)

American Academy of Family Physicians