In the past couple weeks there has been much talk about the cancer risk from medical radiation. According to a recent Reuters article, one chest CT scan delivers the same radiation (and risk) as 100 chest X-rays. However, these numbers still do not communicate the bigger picture: CT cancer risk can be more clearly explained.
Since most people never get close to getting 100 chest X-rays, we need to find a more common point of comparison. Driving, however, is something most North Americans do on a regular basis, and its risks are well-publicized.
43,000 people died in 2007 from car accidents in the U.S. During that same year, U.S. drivers drove 3 trillion miles, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Based on these statistics, the risk of dying from driving 35,000 miles is about 1 in 2000 (0.05%).
An abdominal/pelvic CT scan delivers about 15 milliSieverts of radiation. In our calculations, using the most conservative data from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Chernobyl disaster, the risk of mortality from radiation-induced cancer is also about 1 in 2000 (0.05%).
Published data also supports this risk level: Brenner and Hall have estimated that the total lifetime attributable risk of death from cancer after receiving an abdominal CT with 240 mAs, is in the 0.06%-0.07% range (this estimate is for ages 15-25; CT risk drops radically after age 25).
Thus: If the average U.S. driver travels just under 14,000 miles per year… then the risk of dying in car accident (if only driving for 2 years, or 35,000 miles) is about the same as the lifetime risk of dying from cancer induced by the radiation in a CT of the abdomen and pelvis.
Of course, driving more carefully and lowering the CT dose per scan both are good ideas.