FDA steps up radiation safety efforts

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The terrible irony of medical radiation, be it mammography, X-rays, CT scans or radiation treatment, is that it not only diagnoses and treats cancer, it also causes cancer.

RadiationAs individuals we weigh the risks vs. benefits. But we have no control over errors in treatment, which it turns out may be more common that anyone really knows. A gripping new series by the New York Times chronicles software flaws, improper training of radiation technicians, miscalibration of equipment and other errors that lead to overradiation, sometimes resulting in the patient's death.

Today the FDA stepped in to tackle CT scans, nuclear medicine and fluoroscopy, which deliver far higher doses of radiation than X-rays or mammograms. The agency's new proposal would require manufacturers to incorporate safeguards in the design of these machines to prevent overradiation.

According to the Times, no single agency oversees medical radiation, accidents are chronically underreported, many workers who have made mistakes during a patient's radiation therapy are still practicing, and, through a rather strict New York law, hospitals that report medical mistakes can have their identity shielded.

While today's news and the Times article focus on acute reactions to excess radiation, the long-term lifetime risk of cancer is also a serious concern — a concern that we hope the FDA will address in the near future.

Some strides have been made, including the Breast Cancer Fund's successful passage of a California radiation standards law in 2005. Today's FDA announcement is good news, but we have far to go to ensure patients receive the lowest possible dose of radiation.

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