What Are the Dangers of Nuclear Medicine Radiation?

Kenneth W. Michael Wills

Nuclear medicine radiation is used during the nuclear imaging process to help medical professionals spot biological conditions. Technicians inject small amounts of radiation into the bloodstream and use special cameras to find abnormalities. In most circumstances, the use of radiation in this manner poses little risk, however, there are cumulative effects due to repeat exposures. Women who are pregnant or breast feeding also risk complications with unborn children or health issues with children feeding on breast milk. Other dangers posed include allergies, occupational hazards, waste disposal and potential targets of opportunity for terrorists.

Doctors rely on nuclear medicine radiation to help them diagnose patients.
Doctors rely on nuclear medicine radiation to help them diagnose patients.

Dosages used during the imaging procedure are small, and as of 2011 research has yet to observe any long-term effects. Patients who are subjected to repeated procedures, however, are at a higher risk of developing cancer and other health problems associated with repeated exposure to nuclear medicine radiation. This happens because the radiation accumulates in the body and builds up over time. Expectant mothers and those who are breast feeding run the risk of complications with their pregnancy or of passing the radiation on to their children through milk. Due to such risks, medical professionals often do not use imaging procedures that rely on radiation for expectant mothers and those breast feed their babies.

Nuclear medicine offers a minimally invasive way to diagnose some cancers, but there are also dangers of being exposed repeatedly.
Nuclear medicine offers a minimally invasive way to diagnose some cancers, but there are also dangers of being exposed repeatedly.

Allergic reactions are not commonly associated with nuclear medicine radiation, but they do occur. Often the allergy is mild and only poses minimal discomfort, though in some cases the patient's body may react vigorously when subjected to radiation. Previous reactions, whether mild or severe, need to be reported to medical professionals before undergoing any type of imaging procedures that use radiation.

Breast cancer is often diagnosed through nuclear medicine radiation procedures such as mammogram.
Breast cancer is often diagnosed through nuclear medicine radiation procedures such as mammogram.

Occupational hazards related to nuclear medicine radiation on the other hand, pose more significant risks due to repeated exposure. Exam administrators have an increased risk of developing cataracts or cancer, or of experiencing complications with pregnancy. Technologists, however, can mitigate those risk by following proper safety procedures and wearing the right safety equipment.

Radioactive contamination control and waste management are key in preventing accidental exposure.
Radioactive contamination control and waste management are key in preventing accidental exposure.

Storage of nuclear waste materials likely poses the most pressing dangers from nuclear medicine radiation. There are two main risks associated with the storage of radioactive wastes: security and lack of permanent repositories. As of 2011, the United States lacks permanent facilities to store nuclear waste and thus stores the material in temporary locations where people are not exposed to it. Such facilities, along with medical facilities that use nuclear medicine, potentially serve as targets for terrorists seeking nuclear materials or to use the facility itself as a bomb site to spread nuclear radiation. Facilities can prevent such scenarios by following proper security procedures and adequately tracking stored radioactive waste materials.

Breastfeeding mothers may need to avoid tests or treatments that utilize nuclear medicine because of the risk to the baby.
Breastfeeding mothers may need to avoid tests or treatments that utilize nuclear medicine because of the risk to the baby.
Expectant mothers who experience exposure to nuclear medicine radiation risk passing the radiation on to their children.
Expectant mothers who experience exposure to nuclear medicine radiation risk passing the radiation on to their children.

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