The Brain Cancer Risk From Careless Radiation Testing at Hospitals

It started when my brother-in-law, who is kind of fond of the drink, fell down heavily at home one day when a stroke hit him. It was a minor stroke that he recovered from with a week in hospital; but to be on the safe side, the doctors recommended a kind of radiation test that they said would help them identify the exact spot the blockage existed in that had caused the blood flow problem in his brain. The radiation test was to be a procedure called the CT brain perfusion scan; it was kind of scary to hear about – it was to beam the equivalent of hundreds of x-rays worth of radiation into his brain. We might have suspected that this would cause problems later on, but all the high-tech wizardry we were surrounded by kind of helped calm our fears. And then it started – there was the perfect circle of hair that just dropped out of his head one day soon.

When we brought it up with the doctor, he didn’t say that he believed that there was something wrong with the procedure; he wondered if my brother-in-law had started combing his hair in the wrong direction. This was kind of like the way Toyota likes to blame the out-of-control acceleration in their cars on drivers getting their pedals mixed up. We began to read up, and then came this breaking story in the New York Times that really was a wake-up call. That CT brain scan was what was behind it all the time. Those machines (made by GE, Toshiba and others) didn’t have the software set up so that they would be easy for the technicians to use; the companies didn’t train the lab technicians properly, and my brother-in-law had ended up getting 10 times the radiation he should have. And there are so many people this is happening to that there’s actually a class action lawsuit being planned.

What exactly happens then when this machine zaps your brain? The most visible thing that happens right away is that you lose your hair for a few weeks. But there are more serious things that go on within. Brain cancer and memory loss happen to be real possibilities. The problem here is that there is so much going on on the cutting-edge science of radiation therapy that there has been not enough time to discover everything that can go wrong, and to establish training procedures that will help lab technicians learn their skills properly before they zap anyone into orbit. There actually is no legal limit to how much radiation they can give you either.

While they suspect that brain cancer could be a strong possibility, there hasn’t been enough time that has elapsed that they could actually find out how serious things can be. Perhaps the problem is that we’ve come to depend on safety features built into everything we use. If you don’t close the door of your microwave properly, it’s not going to work; if you don’t close the door of your car properly, it’s going to warn you repeatedly. Technicians who work these machines easily use the automated features provided, assuming that they’ve been designed to be idiot proof – to warn them when they are about to zap someone into getting brain cancer. They forget that idiot-proofing is just a consumer innovation. Professional equipment doesn’t come with these features, because they assume that technicians know what they are doing. If it’s at all comforting to hear this, a few high-ranking hospital staff at hospitals around the country have suffered the same effects. It just goes to show how light the veneer of the safety is that we take for granted.