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CT Scans in Children May Increase Cancer Risk

June 8, 2012 — According to a new study published in The Lancet, researchers have found that children who receive repeated CT scans are three times more likely to develop cancer. The researchers found an increased risk of brain cancer, leukemia, bone cancer, and cancers of the blood. The increased risk is likely due to the fact that children are more sensitive to radiation than adults, combined with other risk factors — including improperly trained radiation therapy technicians, and machines that are not proven safe or effective for children.


The authors of the paper conducted a retrospective study that involved more than 180,000 patients. All of the patients were located in Britain, and began the study when they were less than 22 years old between 1985 and 2002. The researchers found that patients who had received at least 60 milliGrays (mGy) of radiation were three times more likely to develop brain cancer or leukemia. One CT scan delivers about 5-8 mGy of radiation.

The risk of developing cancer is still small, however. Of the 180,000 patients, 74 were diagnosed with leukemia, and 135 developed brain tumors.

According to a study from Johns Hopkins in 2010, the use of CT scans in emergency rooms has increased three-fold over the last 10 years. They are undoubtedly life-saving tools, and the immediate risk of not using a CT scan to diagnose an illness likely outweighs the long-term increased risk of cancer.

Even so, the researchers concluded that doctors need to use CT scans only when absolutely necessary.

The FDA has also voiced concerns about high doses of radiation with CT scans. In May 2012, they issued draft guidance to manufacturers of radiation therapy devices. The FDA wants device manufacturers to prove that they are safe for use in children before they are sold in the U.S. Devices that do prove they are safe for children would be labeled as potentially hazardous.

The FDA also issued a recommendation in November 2010, hoping to increase training for radiation therapy technicians. After a yearlong investigation, the FDA had concluded that nearly all radiation over-exposures were due to operator error, and were rarely problems with the CT scanners themselves.

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