A little rad ’ll do ya

July 3, 2008

A century ago, radiation exposure was considered a good thing. Roentgen’s discovery ignited curiosity and an abundance of optimism that this new “X” ray and others like it would illuminate a path to good health. People wore radium pendants to treat rheumatism, drank radon water for pep, and wrapped themselves in uranium blankets for arthritis.

A century ago, radiation exposure was considered a good thing. Roentgen's discovery ignited curiosity and an abundance of optimism that this new "X" ray and others like it would illuminate a path to good health. People wore radium pendants to treat rheumatism, drank radon water for pep, and wrapped themselves in uranium blankets for arthritis.

Opinions changed as the healthy glow turned dark. Stories of cancer deaths from radiation-induced tumors and anemia among workers who made the stuff people thought would make them feel better put an end to that optimism.

Today, there is an effort to rehabilitate the reputation of low-dose radiation. In a variation of the 1950s Brylcreem hair product jingle, "a little dab 'll do ya," Don Luckey claims short-term controlled exposure to low doses of radiation is good for your health.

The emeritus professor of biochemistry at the University of Missouri, who served the Apollo moon mission astronauts as a nutritional consultant, makes some provocative claims in the most recent issue of the International Journal of Low Radiation. He argues that radiation exposure can minimize infectious disease, reduce the incidence of cancer, and increase lifespan, particularly in cases of radiation deficiency. Good luck at winning that argument.

Concerns about radiation are everywhere. The city of Fond du Lac, WI, near where I live, plans to boost water prices more than 60% in order to reduce the parts per million of radium in its water supply below an EPA-dictated minimum.

CT makers understand the public's sensitivity to radiation. Over the last few years, they have come up with a range of ideas to minimize x-ray dose, and the work is ongoing. As they continue to ratchet down the dose, their products may provide the one truly verifiable support for Lucky's argument that small amounts of radiation improve health.

Next month, the Journal of the American College of Radiology will publish data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that show that 44% of the 11 million patients who come to emergency rooms in the U.S. undergo imaging studies. Among these, CT is the most common imaging modality, accounting for 40% of ED imaging studies. Next up was ultrasound at 27%.

While the need to minimize radiation is clear, it is just as important to recognize its importance. Arguments such as those by Don Luckey may be difficult to defend. Those of medical imaging are not.