Radiation Safety

What healthcare workers should know about radiation effects

How does radiation affect healthcare workers? What are the harmful effects of radiation? How do you protect yourself?


Radiology is an integral component of medical diagnostic tools that diagnose various health conditions and play a critical role in monitoring treatment and predicting outcomes. Healthcare professionals use different radiological tools, including imaging modalities of varying principles, mechanisms, and complexities.

A 2021 research study shows that ionizing radiation is a common component of medical diagnostics. However, medical radiology and diagnostic imaging advances have raised concerns for healthcare professionals. Occupational radiation exposure can cause adverse effects on physical and mental functions.

Health institutions, including hospitals, diagnostic centers, and clinics, have implemented safety measures to protect workers from radiation. Fewer healthcare organizations and workers understand the radiation safety range.

According to Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), a healthcare worker must not have radiation exposure to more than the following standards within three months.

  • 5 mSv for the whole body
  • 5 mSv for hands, forearms, ankles, and feet
  • 75 mSv for the skin (the largest organ in your body)

So, how does radiation used in diagnostic procedures affect healthcare workers? What are the harmful effects? Does radiation cause chronic conditions? How can health workers protect themselves from radiation? Today’s article will give you essential details. Let’s start with the effects of radiation!

Cataracts

A 2009 research study highlights that the eyes’ lenses are the most vulnerable tissues in the body. A lens is more prone to radio waves, x-rays, and other radiations, including ionizing radiation. Researchers say healthcare workers without protective measures are more likely to experience radiation-induced cataracts. 

Cataracts induced by ionizing energy or radiation can block the light passing through the eye’s lens. As a result, you will experience blurred vision because the sharply defined image won’t reach your retina. Therefore, it is crucial to use special goggles that prevent radiation exposure.

Cancer

Diagnostic tools that use medium to high radiation, such as alpha particles, gamma rays, and x-rays, can damage DNA and chromosomes. Ionizing radiation can alter the DNA structure and disrupt the programmed cell death mechanisms, causing excessive growth of cells.

As a result, excessive cell growth can increase the risk of malignancy, tumor formation, and cancer. Medical procedures, such as chest x-rays, positron emission tomography (PET) scans, and computed tomography (CT) scans, can expose health workers to ionizing radiation and increase cancer risk due to cell damage.

A 2019 research study highlights that the risk of cancer from diagnostic procedures is small, but continued exposure can cause tumors in various body parts, including the brain. So, health professionals occupationally exposed to ionizing radiation are more vulnerable to developing cancer.

Radiation changes the genes or damages the cell nucleus, leading to radiation-induced cancer. Moreover, this damage may not occur directly through the radiation but due to chemical products produced in the body that interact with cells and tissues, causing severe damage to these structures.

Sterility

Sterility is one of the most significant and severe effects of ionization radiation or radio waves in various diagnostic tools. Not only does radiation exposure causes healthcare workers, particularly men, to experience low testosterone and sperm levels, but it also damages the spine, pelvis, and abdomen.

For instance, a health worker exposed to 15 REM of radiation can lower testosterone levels and cause temporary sterility. Likewise, the same radiation exposure can cause sterility in women.

Brain Tumors

A 2016 research study highlights the ICRP’s standards for occupational exposure to ionizing radiation below 50 millisieverts (MSV). However, researchers reviewed several epidemiological intervention studies to study the effects of fluoroscopy and other diagnostic imaging tools.

Researchers conclude that health workers exposed to ionization radiation are twice likely to suffer from brain tumors or cancer. Although there is a need for more research to confirm the evidence in a large group of health professionals, researchers say the increased reactive oxygen levels, oxidative damage to the DNA and chromosomes, and immunosuppression caused by ionizing radiation can lead to brain cancer.

Hair Loss

Ionization radiation for the whole body between 300 and 500 rads is 60 times the occupational dose limit per year. So, this dose received by healthcare workers within a few hours can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever. However, long-term exposure can weaken the scalp and lead to hair loss.

Collagen is one of the most abundant proteins in the human body and plays a critical role in building and repairing musculoskeletal structures (bones, muscles, ligaments, and tendons), skin, scalp, and hair. Some studies highlight that collagen improves scalp health and leads to hair growth.

However, a 2018 study shows that ionizing radiation disrupts the metabolic activities or functions of proteins, including collagen, in the extracellular matrix. As a result, the radiation severely affects protein production and takes a massive toll on the skin and scalp.

How Do You Protect Yourself from Radiation Exposure?

Health institutions, including hospitals, radiology departments, clinics, and diagnostic centers, have heavily invested in radiation protection measures to safeguard their workers and patients from harmful effects.

OSHA highlights that harmful effects of radiation depend on various factors, such as the radiation amount, exposure duration, distance from the device/diagnostic tool, and the level/measurement of protection.

As a healthcare worker, you can protect yourself from ionizing radiation through education about the high dose areas during fluoroscopy and masures such as wearing lead aprons, gloves, lead strips during advanced diagnostic procedures, like fluoroscopy and CT scans, and lead-plated glass shields to protect your skin, eyes and other body parts, and increase the distance from the diagnostic tool.

Final Words

The effects of occupational exposure to diagnostic tools and radiation emitted by them can cause severe adverse effects on healthcare workers. Institutions and hospitals must implement the standards and safety protocols defined by OSHA to streamline the entire process and reduce the risk of occupational exposure. Furthermore each staff member is responsible for their own safety and education about these dangers.

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