When is Diagnostic Radiation Unsafe?

When it comes to modern medicine, many of the decisions that you make concerning your child’s health, involves a risk verses benefit factor.

The healthcare profession is extremely fortunate to have the diagnostics tools that are available for us to use. These powerful diagnostic tools have truly revolutionized our ability to accurately diagnose our patient’s condition. Consequently, this leads to prescribing the proper treatment modalities which results in successful outcomes for our patient’s. This is beneficial to the patient, am I right? However, these broadly used diagnostic tools also pose a danger to your child, thus we have our risk. What are the tools I am talking about? I’m talking about diagnostic tools such as CT scanners, X-ray machines, PET scanners, etc.  Although, these tools have revolutionized health care, your exposure to the high levels of radiation they emit can be hazardous to your health.  We’re talking about diagnostic medical radiation.

So, what exactly is diagnostic medical radiation? It is radiation that simply goes under our skin and reveals what a doctor’s skilled hands can’t palpate and what can’t be seen by the naked eye. Diagnostic radiation comes in different amounts and forms. Now, to address the amounts of radiation, an example of a small amount is the amount used for dental x-rays.  An example of a very large amount, is the amount your child could be expose to while undergoing a CT scan or PET scan procedure. Can you believe these scans can deliver the equivalent of up to 1000 or more chest x-rays?  Well, believe it.

But these tools are so valuable. They can spot precursors to certain disease processes and the early presence of so many others, such as, appendicitis, cancer, cardiovascular disease, infectious diseases, traumas, kidney stones and musculoskeletal disorders.  And because of their accuracy and speed, the need for some of the procedure once done routinely (exploratory surgeries, biopsies and other invasive procedures) has been curtailed.

Now the question you are probably asking at this point is, what is the down side to diagnostic radiation?  When it comes to radiation, all radiation creates what science calls “free radical.” Free radicals can cause damage to your child’s DNA. This can occur immediately but sometimes the damage can occur in the future. What becomes concerning is that the damage DNA is dangerous. What parents need to know is that radiation accumulates in the body. When your child is exposed to radiation, it doesn’t pass through them completely. A percentage of it will stay in their body and build up over time.

The question you may be asking right now is, how much radiation is too much? Well, there are two schools of thought involved with this question.  Some health care professionals believe that all diagnostic radiation is somewhat harmful, regardless of the amount.  But there is not any evidence to back this assumption.  When you look at this from a risk versus benefit perspective, particularly in the areas where radiation exposure is the highest, (i.e., CT scans, PET scans, etc.) the benefits outweigh the risk tremendously.  However, the other school of thought, is in complete contrast to the one, mentioned previously. Proponents of this school of thought believe that diagnostic radiation is extremely risky and have studies to back their claim.  There was a study involving CAT scans which concluded that the scan alone will increase the number of cancer cases in our nation by 2 percent (nearly 30, 000 cases). This could also result in, they concluded, about 14,500 deaths.  There was another study which concluded that the overuse of CT scans could lead to an estimated 3 million radiation-caused cancers over the next 20 to 30 years.

How is radiation measured?

Radiation can be measured by comparing radiation received from a medical procedure with natural background radiation. Background radiation is the radiation one receives simply from living on this planet. It has several sources. Cosmic rays (radiation from the Sun and stars), radiation from the earth (from the rocks and the soil), and radiation from Radon (odorless, colorless gas that is formed from the breakdown of radioactive elements in the ground).

Below, you will find profiles of some of the most common radiological procedures and how they compare to your child’s natural background radiation exposure:

Procedure                                                                                                                        Days of Natural Background Radiation                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

CAT scan (this procedure consists of hundreds of X-rays at different angles, which are   combined by a computer to produce a 3-d image)

 up to 2000

(5.5 years)


Chest X-ray


Dental X-ray
   Screening mammogram
Routine preventive screening/Diagnostic mammogram
(these are additional X-rays examining specific problem areas)PET Scan with this procedure, a tracer, that is radioactive, will be injected into the bloodstream or it is swallowed. As it moves through the body, radiation is emitted.
PET Scan

(with this procedure a tracer that is radioactive, will be injected into the bloodstream or it is swallowed. As it moves through the body, radiation is emitted.

  2500 (6.8 years)

In view of these facts, your next question is probably, “when should I say no and what are my alternatives?” Good question. The answer to this question should be discussed with your doctor.  Your doctor would be aware of the risk involved in radiation-based diagnoses.  The doctor would be able to advise you as to when to say no. 

Sometimes, it just takes using some common sense.  For example, we all know that dental visits often require taking an x-ray of your teeth and jaw. From my experience, it is rare for the Dental Tech to ask you for permission.  Even though, it is a small amount of radiation, there is no such thing as a “small” amount of DNA damage. 

So, what about the procedures that emit a large amount of radiation, i.e., your CT scans, PET scans, etc.  Those in the medical community are aware of the fact, that many children who presents to the emergency room with abdominal pain or headache, have automatically bought themselves a CAT scan. The technology is so good that it has often been overused. It is estimated that 85 million CAT scans are performed every year.  So, what can a parent do to avoid the radiation based diagnostic tools?  There are a couple of alternatives that are as effective, if not more effective. The alternatives are ultrasounds and MRI’s. I need to point out that there are exceptions, where radiation-based procedures are required. My recommendation is that you mention your preference to avoid radiation based procedures to your child’s Pediatrician and allow the physician to advise you.

However, there are times when radiation based diagnostics are unavoidable. Fortunately, God has provided us ways to protect against radiation damage and some of them are delicious. What I am about to share with you are items that have high concentrations of antioxidants.  These antioxidants protect against DNA damage. These antioxidants can be found in teas made from the Chaga mushroom extract.

Blueberries is another natural food item that contains protective antioxidants and specialized anti-cancer compounds.  It is recommended that your child eats 45 berries a day or try a supplement containing the extract. If your child doesn’t like the taste of plain blueberries, you can always add it to pancake or muffin mixes. Have you ever added them to a homemade smoothie? Very delicious. Foods that contain vitamin A, vitamin C and vitamin D will have antioxidants, as well.  Or you can give them the supplemental equivalent. For Vitamin A, the recommended daily intake is 5,000 IU, for Vitamin C it is 1,000 mg and for Vitamin D, it is 5,000 mg. Lastly, the product, Curcumin is a powerful tumor-inhibiting product. If you get Curcumin in a supplemental form, 500 mg. should be suffice, just be sure it is in a “bioavailable” formulation.   And always, consult with your Pediatrician before considering any behavioral, dietary or supplemental changes.


Tony is a Registered Nurse, who has 25 years of pediatric experience. He has practiced as a Staff Nurse, Charge Nurse, and as a Nurse Manager at Cook Childrens Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas. He also has experience in the adult arena, most recently as a nurse in a Cardiovascular ICU and as a Hemodialysis Nurse. He has a wife and two children. His hobbies are Bible study, physical fitness, working with children, writing and blogging.