How much X-ray radiation is safe?

By Elizabeth Connor • Published: August 24th, 2010
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

It wasn’t that long ago — in the nineteen-forties — that people shopping for shoes routinely had their feet X-rayed. The idea was that X-rays could help sales clerks find shoes with a perfect fit. But by the mid-nineteen fifties, the Food and Drug Administration recognized the harmful effects of these shoe-store X-ray machines and banned them.

Today we understand even more that the benefits of X-rays carry a risk. Children, in particular, are susceptible to such risks. One reason? When it comes to kids, potential problems have a lifetime to appear. That’s why pediatricians and other health-care providers are encouraged to prescribe X-rays only when absolutely necessary.

At the University of Florida, researchers are giving doctors a clearer picture than ever before of how much radiation reaches sensitive tissues during routine X-rays and similar imaging. Their work will help minimize the risk of X-rays by making dosing much more accurate and tailored to individual patients.

U-F scientists are building three-dimensional models of the human skeleton that identify where bones are the most susceptible to the effects of radiation. For example, they found that the composition of babies’ bones is different from that of adults. Babies, it turns out, have a higher proportion of the kind of bone material that is especially sensitive to X-ray damage.

Researchers say a person’s size and certain diseases such as osteoporosis also can affect sensitivity to X-rays.

Although there are risks to X-rays, keep in mind, these images also help save lives. As scientists gain understanding of how our bodies absorb X-rays, they remain consistent with their advice — to use this powerful tool sparingly and wisely in the service of good health.