Radiation Mishaps Make News

As I’ve discussed here, I suspect radiation played a role in the onset of my breast cancer. How big of a role? I’ll never know. But between the ages of 12 and 14, I regularly received blasts of radiation for the monitoring of scoliosis. I don’t know exactly how many x-rays came my way in total, but I do know that protecting my breasts was never mentioned.

Later, as a health writer, I grew increasingly wary of medicine’s willy-nilly use of radiation. My concern escalated in 2008 when I wrote a piece for Time Magazine about the potential hazards of CT scans, especially for children. The basis of the story was two studies indicating an increased cancer risk associated with multiple CT scans. I was blown away to learn that each CT scan packs as much radiation as up to 500 conventional x-rays. Of course, CT scans can be a life-saving diagnostic tool and should absolutely be used when necessary, but my reporting found that they are widely overused.

Not to mention, the operator-error factor. One of the most disturbing tidbits I uncovered in reporting that story was from a CT technician who admitted that even though newer scanners can be adjusted to give children up to 50% less radiation (a standard recommendation), many technicians simply forget to reset the machine.

Needless-to-say, I was thrilled to see the New York Times tackle the issue of radiation safety these past couple of weeks, and I want to help them spread the word. What first grabbed my attention was this article about the lack of radiation safeguards. The people most often in harm’s way? Cancer patients.

Thousands of radiation errors are made every year, many of which are never reported to the FDA. Here are just a few of the most egregious examples from the NYT’s coverage, When Medical Radiation Goes Awry:

  • Patient A had just completed treatment for a brain tumor and received additional radiation intended for Patient B, who had breast cancer.
  • A 31-year-old woman with vaginal cancer was overdosed because of confusion over the method of measuring the strength of radioactive seeds…causing an overdose of radiation to her rectum and vagina.
  • A doctor implanted radioactive seeds in the wrong location in a patient with prostate cancer. The radiation oncologist then failed to promptly interpret a post-implant CT scan, which would have revealed the error.
  • A patient with breast cancer received a 50% overdose for 10 treatments because a wedge (a gadget used to shape the radiation beam) was mistakenly left out.
  • Another breast cancer patient, 32 years old, received 27 days of radiation overdoses (three times the prescribed amount).

Thankfully, I’m not the only person who was flabbergasted by the magnitude of these medical errors. The NYT’s coverage culminated today in the news that the FDA is finally going to “take steps to more stringently regulate three of the most potent forms of medical radiation, including increasingly popular CT scans.” I’m not a big fan of the FDA. I think the agency is spread too thin and given too little resources to get the job done. But, at the very least, maybe, someone is finally paying attention.

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