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Pediatric CT scans Raise the Risk of Brain Cancer, Leukemia Later in Life

Jun 7, 2012 | Parker Waichman LLP

Pediatric CT scans raise the risks posed by brain cancer or leukemia later in life.

According to new research published in The Lancet, a child who receives several CT scans through their early years is more likely to develop those life-threatening diseases and although the risk is relatively low overall, the increasing use of these image tests on children in recent years could elevate those risks.

Hospitals and physicians are prescribing more CT scans for a variety of reasons, either because it’s absolutely necessary, a physician feels compelled to conduct the tests because the hospital has it available, a patient’s insurance company will pay for it, and they fear potential legal trouble in the future. Other recent studies have suggested that many CT scans administered, especially to children, are unnecessary; that many doctors are replacing bedside care with a wealth of scans and image tests.

An AP report highlights the results of a new study from researchers at Newcastle University in the U.K. which followed more than 180,000 recipients of a CT scan in a British hospital between 1985 and 2002 until 2008. During that time, 74 had developed leukemia and another 135 had brain tumors.

Rather than focusing on the frequency of the scans, this research focused on the amount of radiation delivered during them. The research suggests that most of the CT scans performed on the children included in the study were on their head. CT scans are most often ordered on children suffering head, neck, and spine injuries, or neurological disorders. And while there did not appear to be issue with the number of CT scans ordered, there does appear to be confusion on how much radiation to administer to a child receiving a scan.

Radiation exposure has different effects on different parts of the body and in children, the dangers of radiation overexposure are amplified, especially involving scans on vital regions of the body like the head and brain. The latest British study suggests the “risk of brain tumors was tripled if children had two to three scans and the risk of leukemia was tripled with five to 10 scans.”

In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration has recently ordered the makers of CT scan devices to clearly indicate the dangers of radiation exposure to children and to provide clear instructions and training on the use of their devices with pediatric patients. If a child were to receive an adult’s dose of radiation for a CT scan, it could impact their risk of developing cancer later in life. If a child receives a few scans during their developing years, the risk only increases. In addition to these new orders, the FDA has also asked device makers to create new products that require less radiation, especially for a pediatric setting.

Parents have been urged to ask questions prior to their child receiving a CT scan, including whether the image test is absolutely necessary. 

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