Occupational Radiation Exposure and Cancer Risk

Last Modified: March 22, 2012

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I work as a radiologist, am I at increased risk for getting cancer?


Carolyn Vachani, RN, MSN, AOCN, OncoLink Nurse Educator, responds:

People in certain professions may be at increased risk for cancer due to occupational radiation exposure. These professions include medical radiologic technicians, aircrews, radium dial luminisers, underground hard-rock miners, Chernobyl clean-up workers, nuclear weapons test participants, and nuclear industry workers. While you cannot change past radiation exposure, you may be able to protect yourself going forward. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration has established guidelines about occupational exposures and steps in place to protect workers. In addition, either let your healthcare provider know about past exposure so that appropriate screening tests can be done to decrease the risk of developing cancer or detect the cancer at an early stage.

Radiologists and medical radiologic technicians, who were working prior to 1950, are at a higher risk of developing cancer because of occupational exposure to radiation. The most common cancers seen in this group are leukemia, breast cancer and skin cancers (typically squamous cell skin cancers). Studies focusing on medical radiation workers since the 1960s do not show an increased risk of cancer, possibly due to increased safety practices, including better shielding, protection, and monitoring.

In the first half of 20th century, Radium chemists and dial luminisers may have unknowingly been exposed to large amounts of radium and radium-based paint. These workers are at higher risk of developing bone cancer (sarcoma) and possibly cancer of the breast and/or sinuses.

Underground hard-rock miners are exposed to and inhale large quantities of radon, increasing their risk for developing lung cancer.

Due to the reduced shielding by the atmosphere, aircrews are exposed to higher levels of cosmic radiation and appear to be at increased risk for developing skin cancers, though studies have not been conclusive.

Chernobyl clean-up workers, nuclear weapons test participants, and nuclear industry workers appear to be at an increased risk for leukemia and thyroid cancer.

This question and answer was part of the OncoLink Brown Bag Chat Series. View the entire Cancer Risk & Prevention Webchat transcript.

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