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Garry Choy, MD, MS  
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Interests: Radiology
Massachusetts General Hospital
Diagnostic Radiology
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Japan Crisis: Should you be worried about radiation exposure?

Mar 21, 2011 - 14 comments
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japan

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nuclear

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radiation

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radioactivity

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Radiology

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radiation exposure



As events unfold in Japan, one can't help but worry about the consequences on health due to the developing emergency at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant.  Day by day, we are learning about escalating efforts by Japanese emergency workers and engineers stepping up their strategy in preventing a major meltdown.  Low levels of radiation are detected both locally and in other countries, particularly in the United States on the west coast.  Very low levels of radiation have also been detected in the food supply in Japan.

Should one be worried about radiation exposure?  
It certainly is a valid and justified concern, particular for those currently living in Japan and in close proximity to the nuclear reactors.  

In case things do take a turn for the worse, "radiation sickness" or symptoms of radiation exposure can be recognized.  The sequela of radiation exposure are especially relevant at this time for the Japanese workers who are working within the epicenter of the nuclear reactors and risking their lives to avert disaster.  As an additional note, I want to emphasize, that along with the many who are now working hard in the recovery efforts, the workers at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant should be recognized as heroes.  

What are symptoms of acute radiation exposure?
Acute radiation exposure symptoms depend on the level of radiation exposure.  Symptoms and signs include the following:

- Gastrointestinal effects such as nausea and vomiting
- Hematological disturbances such as anemia and bleeding
- Immunological compromise leading to infection
- Usually associated with larger dose exposures, neurological impairment and rapid death can occur

Chronic radiation exposure or long term effects can lead to genetic damage subsequently putting someone at risk for development of cancers and other hematological conditions.

While workers in Japan and those in the epicenter of the evolving nuclear emergency should certainly be vigilant of radiation exposure symptoms.  However, people outside of Japan, particularly those in North America, including the continental United States, Pacific Islands (including Hawaii), Canada, and countries of South America at this time should not be alarmed.  In my opinion, while the ultra-sensitive radioactivity detectors in for example, the United States, will likely pick up some degree of very low radioactivity, the effective health consequences of this measured radioactivity is essentially nil at this point based on the current situation.  


Airport Full-body Scanners - Friend or foe?

Nov 20, 2010 - 43 comments
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airport

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airport scanner

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radiation

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airport scanners

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Radiology

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Travel



As the travel season nears, I can't but wonder about the security lines at the airport I will be encountering. Will I get stuck in the line with the full body scanner or will I get away with the good old fashion metal detector?  Whether it
be in the hospital or at the airport, I will be not too far away from a full-body scanner.  This time, the tables will be turned: I won't be the one looking at the images.  I will now be one being scanned and receiving the radiation dose.  

Is there any harm or adverse effects to one as an individual? There is no evidence currently out there that indicates that these scanning technologies presents any significant effects biologically to an individual. The types of scanning systems make use of "millimeter wave technology" or "backscatter x-rays" which deliver extremely weak levels of radiation per scan. According to the American College of Radiology (ACR), for example, "backscatter technology" delivers radiation equivalent to "flying inside an aircraft for two minutes at 30,000 feet." Based on calculations from the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement (NCRP), the ACR states that "a traveler would require more than 1,000 scans in a year to reach the effective dose equal to one standard chest x-ray." Does this reassure me? Quite frankly, yes - this type of technology is very safe and low in radiation dose but nonetheless I do realize I am getting one more dose of radiation than necessary. Also if you may be wondering if this type of scan is just too much especially if you have had more than your fair share of radiation already in the form of prior radiation therapy or multiple prior x-rays or CT scans.  Rest assured, a scan at the airport will expose you to a negligible dose and will not harm you.

Are there any long-term harm or public health concerns? Over time, the question remains -- we will be exposing large populations to these minimal dose of x-rays.  Over time, as a population, the overall dose will add up.  No one knows what the true long-term effect will be.  More research needs to be performed in order to fully investigate the impact, if any, that this technology will have on large populations.

Are there any resources where I can learn more about radiation dose and x-rays? The ACR encourages those interested in learning more regarding radiation associated with imaging and radiation oncology procedures as well as radiation naturally occurring in the Earth's atmosphere to visit www.radiologyinfo.org.  Again, there is currenlty no evidence that the scanning technologies that the airports are using would present significant biological effects for passengers screened.

My advice and final thought. As a citizen of this country and of the world, I am just wondering will scanning everyone even make a dent in our fight against terrorism? I sure hope that the powers that be are working on more sustainable and better solutions to fight terrorism and prevent someone from even thinking about doing harm on our airlines, rather than try to catch a needle in a haystack using full-body scanning to detect individuals with weapons or explosive materials.

Finally, as a physician, I am not worried about the radiation dose from these airport scanners.  Travel safe and enjoy the holidays with your loved ones!

Happy Holidays!