New research on the cancer risk of low-dose ionizing radiation could have disturbing implications for those who are exposed to radiation on the job – including medical professionals. In a new study in BMJ, researchers found that nuclear workers exposed to occupational levels of radiation had a cancer mortality risk that was higher than previously estimated.
The link between low-dose radiation and cancer has long been controversial. Most studies on the radiation-cancer connection are based on Japanese atomic bomb survivors, many of whom were exposed to far higher levels of radiation than most people receive over their lifetimes – even those who work with ionizing radiation.
The question is whether that data can be extrapolated to people exposed to much lower levels of radiation, such as nuclear workers, medical professionals, or even patients. To that end, researchers in the International Nuclear Workers Study (INWORKS) have been tracking low-dose radiation exposure and its connection to mortality in nearly 310k people in France, the UK, and the US who worked in the nuclear industry from 1944 to 2016.
INWORKS researchers previously published studies showing low-dose radiation exposure to be carcinogenic, but the new findings in BMJ offer an even stronger link. For the study, researchers tracked radiation exposure based on dosimetry badges worn by the workers and then rates of cancer mortality, and calculated rates of death from solid cancer based on their exposure levels, finding:
- Mortality risk was higher for solid cancers, at 52% per 1 Gy of exposure
- Individuals who received the occupational radiation limit of 20 mSv per year would have a 5.2% increased solid cancer mortality rate over five years
- There was a linear association between low-dose radiation exposure and cancer mortality, meaning that cancer mortality risk was also found at lower levels of exposure
- The dose-response association seen the study was even higher than in studies of atomic bomb survivors (52% vs. 32%)
Even though the INWORKS study was conducted on nuclear workers rather than medical professionals, the findings could have implications for those who might be exposed to medical radiation, such as interventional radiologists and radiologic technologists. The study will undoubtedly be examined by radiation protection organizations and government regulators; the question is whether it leads to any changes in rules on occupational radiation exposure.