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Female health care workers need better protection from radiation, doctors say

Photo: Trish233/iStockphoto

London — A group of physicians is calling on health care employers to provide female workers who are exposed to on-the-job radiation with added protections to minimize their risk of breast cancer.

In an editorial recently published in the journal BMJ, the physicians point out that ionizing radiation is a known human carcinogen, and breast tissue is highly sensitive to radiation. “As such, there are concerns that regular exposure to ionizing radiation during image guided procedures may be linked to a higher risk of breast cancer in female health care workers.”

Although measuring occupational radiation-induced breast cancer risk is a challenge, examining the available evidence and improving personal protective equipment options can help reduce that risk for the rising number of female workers entering X-ray and imaging occupations.

PPE such as lead gowns that are used to shield the body from radiation leave the area close to the armpit exposed, the physicians write, and that area is a common site of breast cancer.

A small Finnish study showed that breast cancer rates were 1.7 times higher than expected among radiologists, surgeons and cardiologists when compared to female physicians who don’t work with radiation.

The London-based Society of Radiographers’ Ionising Radiation Regulations 2017 state that radiation levels delivered to all health care workers should be “as low as reasonably achievable.” Actions include reducing the duration of exposure, increasing distance from the source and shielding all workers with effective PPE.

Additional protection, including capped sleeves and axillary protection wings that can be worn under standard medical gowns, would protect the upper outer quadrant of the breast. Female health care workers should consider adopting this extra layer of protection, the European Society for Vascular Surgery says in its 2023 Clinical Practice Guidelines on Radiation Safety

“Providing appropriate protection is a legal requirement of an employer, who has a duty of care to all workers exposed to radiation,” the editorial states. “The female breast appears to be particularly vulnerable and it is therefore important employers invest in protective equipment that enhances the safety of all their staff.”

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