Do Dental Scans Put Your Child at Risk of Cancer?

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In case you missed it, the New York Times ran this week a stunning expose of the overuse of new X-ray technology in children’s dentistry. The article was part of the paper’s ongoing investigation into problems with the use of radiation in medicine.

Reporters Walt Bogdanich and Jo Craven McGinty wrote:

Not only do most dentists continue to use outmoded X-ray film requiring higher amounts of radiation, but orthodontists and other specialists are embracing a new scanning device that emits significantly more radiation than conventional methods, an examination by The New York Times has found.

Designed for dental offices, the device, called a cone-beam CT scanner, provides brilliant 3-D images of teeth, roots, jaw and even skull. This technology, its promoters say, is a safe way for orthodontists and oral surgeons to work with more precision and to identify problems that otherwise might go unnoticed.

But there is little independent research to validate these claims.

Some of the cone-beam scanners emit four times as much radiation per use as a chest X-ray; all of them expose kids to hundreds of times more radiation than the much-debated airport “porno” scanners. Although there are certain circumstances in which the risk is justified, the story shows that the scanners are being used for screening and in other situations where extra radiation exposure adds risk without appropriate benefit. (More on Like Some Arsenic With That Bird? You Got It.)

A recent study published in Acta Oncologica found that exposure to ordinary dental X-rays was associated with a doubling of risk for thyroid cancer, with increasing exposure linked to increasing risk. While some research has found no association, other studies have connected dental X-rays with increased risk of different types of cancer — a connection that is unsurprising given that radiation has long been known to increase cancer risk.

What can parents do? The Times includes a helpful list of questions to ask your dentist.

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