It’s been one month since the magnitude 9 earthquake hit Japan, triggering a devastating tsunami that set the stage for the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl’s meltdown in Ukraine in 1986. The seriousness of the Fukushima Daiichi crisis has raised questions about nuclear power, radiation and safety. Understandably, worries about radiation and its impact on human health have been in the forefront of everyone’s mind. We all are trying to grasp the gravity of the situation – trying to separate fact from fiction. Unfortunately, misinformation is prevalent. It’s even raising questions in my dental office about dental X-ray safety.
People know the radiation coming from the damaged reactors in Fukushima is harmful. From there, many jump to the conclusion that all radiation is “bad.” This is apparent when you tune into the online chatter on social networking sites or read one of the cautionary emails that get forwarded into your Inbox each week. Fueled by references to the recent Japan disaster and an episode of “The Dr. Oz Show” which aired on television in September 2010, concern about thyroid cancer and X-rays has spiked. The resulting Internet chatter is an unfortunate mix of fact, fiction and fear mongering about radiation. I personally received a email that is circulating around the internet warning people to avoid all dental X-rays and mammograms. And recently we’ve been getting more questions about the safety of routine dental X-rays at our Southfield dental office.
I understand these concerns and I know the thought of battling cancer can be terrifying. However, let me assure you that the diagnostic X-rays we use are safe – we are currently using the newest digital technology that decreases patient exposure by up to 75%! I consistently follow the American Dental Association (ADA) guidelines and drape my patients with leaded thyroid collars and leaded aprons during X-rays. It’s nothing new. We’ve been routinely using thyroid collars for well over 25 years now! We also go out of our way to take the absolute minimum number of films we can in order to additionally decrease exposure (and cost!).
The episode of “The Dr. Oz Show” cited in the email I received focused on thyroid cancer. Cardiothoracic surgeon and TV host Mehmet Oz encouraged the use of thyroid collars and leaded aprons during medical procedures to reduce radiation exposure. This is standard medical protocol. The ADA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have outlined guidelines for this practice in “The Selection of Patients for Dental Radiographic Examinations.” Dr. Oz did not advise patients not to have any dental X-rays or mammograms, only to use the same recommended protection we have always used.
There’s no doubt that there are more cases of diagnosed thyroid cancer being reported in the United States in recent years. It’s about 17 cases out of 100,000 women annually and about 5.8 cases for men. This endocrine cancer is very treatable and 97 percent of patients do well, according to Dr. Otis Brawley, the chief medical officer with the American Cancer Society.
“It is not so much that there are more thyroid cancers, as that more thyroid cancers are being discovered or diagnosed,” explained Dr. Brawley, who is also a health correspondent for CNN. “Use of CAT scans, MRI scans and thyroid ultrasound has dramatically increased over the past 30 years. These tests can detect very small thyroid nodules that several decades ago would not have been found.”
The radiation level in everyday dental X-rays is very low compared to other medical exposure sources, such as a full-body CT scan (0.005 millisieverts for dental X-rays vs. 10 mSv for a Cat Scan). However, we still take every precaution in my office – particularly with children who have a heightened sensitivity to exposure.
Simply put, radiation is energy. It comes from natural and manmade sources. We all are exposed to small amounts every day from the sun’s cosmic rays, elements in the soil, your TV, medical diagnostic tools, the microwave, and so forth. While a nuclear plant meltdown warrants concern, an annual dental X-ray does not. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, “about 80 percent of human exposure comes from natural sources, and the remaining 20 percent comes from man-made radiation sources.”
Dental X-rays are a valuable tool that helps me identify bone loss, hidden cavities, gum disease and hidden dental infections. Radiography shows me things that are out of view and allows me to address oral health issues which will worsen if neglected. I always consider my patients’ medical history, age, cavity risk and oral health to minimize the number of films, and our new digital X-rays significantly decrease patients’ exposure times.
I hope this discussion has reassured you about the safety of dental X-rays, but if you have further questions, please call my cosmetic and general dentistry office at (248) 356-8790 to set up a consultation. Together, we’ll discuss what’s right for you.
So until next time,
Mark W Langberg, DDS, MAGD