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Are X-Rays Dangerous?
By Anne Wexler

One morning you wake up with a toothache. You feel around with your tongue in the painful area and find a small cavity. When you reach your dentist's office and attempt to point out where the pain is, he seems to disregard what you tell him. He says, "We'll have to take X-rays first." You protest, "But, doctor, you took them about a year ago." His retort is, "Yes, but that was a year ago and there may be changes in your mouth." So before you can utter another word, he and his nurse are X-raying every tooth in your head. What has happened to the old time dentist who didn't even X-ray the tooth with the cavity but just went ahead and filled it?

A condensation of Fred Warshofsky's article, "Warning: X-Rays May Be Dangerous to Your Health," which appeared in the August 1972 issue of Reader's Digest tells of a New York dentist with 17 X-ray machines in his two offices who recently sued Medicaid for non-payment of $300,000 in X-ray fees!

Nor are the dentists the sole culprits. In the same article are some other startling statistics. In 1970, 129 million Americans were exposed to a total of 210 million medical and dental X-ray examinations, a total of 650 million films. While undoubtedly some X-rays are necessary, there is now considerable controversy on the subject, as many experts fear that the X-rays may be a real threat to children before they are even conceived. If the cells housed in the male and female genitals are damaged by X-rays, there is a great risk of the offspring being born with genetic defects mental retardation and blindness among others. While no one knows exactly how much radiation will cause mutations, K. Z. Morgan, director of the Health Services Division of the Oak Ridge National Laboratories estimates as many as 30,000 malignancies, stillbirths, and spontaneous abortions may occur each year in generations to follow because of such genetic damage.

Perhaps even more dangerous is the X-ray during pregnancy. A Harvard study of more than 70,000 infants in U.S. hospitals showed a 40% increase in leukemia and cancer of the central nervous system in children whose mothers were X-rayed during pregnancy. I can cite one heart-breaking example. A dear friend of mine, whom I will call Mrs. S., was having difficulty giving birth, clearly a breech delivery. At the last moment, the physician decided that an X-ray was needed. The baby grew into a healthy, active young girl. When she became ill in her late twenties, specialists found she had leukemia which some felt was due to the mother's pre-birth Xray. It is commonly acknowledged that cancer does not develop overnight but takes years. The girl was energetic and athletic; consequently, the cancer took longer to mature. At the age of 29, the best years of her life, this lovely young woman was dead.

What about the other dangers of X-rays for women? "Cancer X-rays Peril to Women?" written by Judith Randall appeared in the Sunday News of March, 1976. Increasing numbers of females are having yearly X-ray exanimations for breast cancer, and the question has arisen as to whether these apparently healthy women are increasing their chances of developing breast cancer from the X-rays. Randall states that the American Cancer Society feels that the danger in using the X-ray mammography machine is slight and can catch cancers when they are too small to be felt and are still easily curable. But Dr. John Bailor 3rd, a National Cancer Institute scientist, is not sure that the society is correct. His concern is that the radiation itself can cause cancer which does not become apparent until 10, 15, or even 20 years after the patient's exposure. Also, since the effects of repeated exposures are cumulative, if at some time in the future we find it has promoted breast cancer in some women, it would be too late to correct the error. Another one of Bailor's concerns is that women as young as 35 are among those enrolled in the breast-cancer detection clinics. He feels they are more vulnerable to the harmful properties of X-ray than older women.

A later article of Randall's appeared in the Daily News in December, 1979 based on some of the findings expressed in the New England Journal of Mediine. The latter suggests that some lives and a great deal of money could be saved if the medical profession would refrain from overusing one particular procedure designed to diagnose heart disease. The procedure is known as cardiac catheterization radio opaque chemicals are injected into the bloodstream so that the coronary arteries which nourish the heart can be seen. While most recover, a small percentage suffer heart attacks due to the examination, and some die.

In the same Journal article, Dr. Brendan Phibbs of the Kino Community Hospital in Tucson, Arizona reports that the typical physician fee for the test is $400 and the average hospital charge $890., It is estimated that there are 300,000 to 400,000 of these procedures annually, and the annual bill for them is between $387 million and $516 million, he says. He cites several examples of cases where he feels that the doctor recommended the study for his own profit:

  • A 50-year old woman who underwent the test deSpite the fact that her symptoms of shoulder and neck pain were clearly not caused by heart disease.
  • A 70-year old patient who was subject to the procedure 6 weeks after she had uneventfully recovered from a heart attack.
  • A cardiologist (heart specialist) who admits that the result of the tests he carries out are normal 60% of the time, but that he does them anyway "because that's what the referring physician asks for."

Still another area of some danger are the chest Xrays which many job applicants must take. According to an article, Daily News November 1982, the American College of Radiology now favors restricting their use based on a study by the Food and Drug Administration's Bureau of Radiological Health. Of 75 million chest X-rays performed in 1980, at a cost of $2 billion, the study approximated that 33% were unjustified as there was little likelihood that they would detect a disease or change its treatment or outcome if they did. Except for certain high risk groups, for whom chest X-rays may still be needed, tuberculosis has become rare in the U.S. It is the opinion of the John Villforth, director of the U.S. Bureau of Radiological Health, as stated in Warshofsky's article, that at least 30% of X-rays are unproductive as they do not contribute any diagnostic information to the doctor.

What makes X-rays potentially dangerous? According to Warshofslcy, medical X-rays are packed with tremendous energy, and the beams rip like lightning bolts through the delicate walls of cells, altering their metabolism, changing their character and often destroying them. If sufficient cells of a particular type are struck, the results are disastrous. Still another hazard, mentioned by Jack Anderson in his column, is the fact that 30% of all new X-ray equipment is defective and emits too much radiation, as reported by Food and Drug Administration inspectors. According to one FDA official, "Many doctors with their own X-ray machines recommend tests for their patients because it means more money."

What can we do to protect ourselves from these hazards? There is a mini-booldet called HHS Publication (FDA) 80-8088 which offers a list of valuable advice:

  1. Ask How It Will Help
  2. Don't Refuse An X-Ray
  3. Don't Insist on an X-Ray
  4. Tell the Doctor if You are or Think You Are Pregnant
  5. Keep Up on New Mammography Information
  6. Ask If a Gonad Shield Can Be Used
  7. Keep an X-Ray Record Card

Each of the above captions are detailed; also included is a handy X-ray record card. Send for your free copy by writing to:

The U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services
Food & Drug Administration
Bureau of Radiological Health (HFX-28) Rockville, Maryland 20857

It is extremely important that we never hesitate about asking our doctor or dentist whether the X-rays suggested are absolutely necessary. If they insist, and you still think it is not needed, refuse to comply with their request, or if you are doubtful, you might seek a second opinion. Only by asserting our rights will we eventually eliminate the dangers of excessive X-raying.

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