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CT Scans May Increase Children’s Risk for Brain Cancer and Leukemia

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The results of a study published in The Lancet, June 7, 2012, and funded by the National Cancer Institute (National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C.) and the United Kingdom Department of Health, show Computed Tomography (CT) scans received by patients as children may increase the risk of brain tumors or leukemia in later life. The study involving 180,000 patients under age 22 who had received CT scans in British hospitals from 1985 to 2002, indicate that there may be a slightly higher chance of brain cancer and leukemia later in life for those patients who received several CT scans as children.

An Associated Press article published June 11, 2012, noted that the patients were followed from 1985 until 2008 in a British study. Seventy-four of the patients were diagnosed with leukemia while 135 had brain tumors. According to the article, the risk of leukemia in children is 1 in 2,000 and several CT scans could "bump it up to about 1 in 600." The research considered the amount of radiation the children received from the scans. A control group of people who received low doses of radiation to the same parts of their bodies was used for comparison.

The study’s lead author Dr. Mark Pearce, Northern Institute for Cancer Research of Newcastle University, noted that "CT scans are very useful, but they also have relatively high doses of radiation, when compared to X-rays." The risk of brain tumors, according to the study, was tripled if children had received two to three scans. The risk of leukemia was tripled when children received five to ten scans. CT scans are important tools in determining damage to the body from injuries or conditions that may cause pain or malfunction. Pearce noted in the press release on Newcastle University’s website, that "when a child suffers a major head injury or develops a life-threatening illness, the benefits of clinically appropriate CT scans should outweigh future cancer risks."

One hopeful fact: Modern CT scans involve about 80 percent less radiation than older machines used in this particular study.