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Health care professionals who have been exposed to radiation over the long term face a higher risk of disease, according to a study published Tuesday in the journal Circulation.

Why it matters:

Radiation has long been recognized as a cancer risk. This study suggests health care professionals who work in labs that use radiation for procedures such as coronary angiography and angioplasty face an elevated risk of a number of health problems beyond cancer.

The nitty gritty:

Researchers in Italy surveyed more than 700 health care workers, scientists, and engineers and collected information about their work, lifestyles, and health, including over 400 who worked in catheterization labs, which use radiation. After controlling for age, gender, and smoking, the researchers found that cath lab workers had higher rates of disease: They were 2.8 times more likely to have skin lesions, 6.3 times more likely to have cataracts, and 7.1 times more likely to have back, neck, and knee problems. Researchers also reported higher rates of thyroid disease, anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. This risk was especially pronounced in workers with longer duration of radiation exposure over their careers.


You’ll want to know:

The study highlighted a “graded relationship” in the prevalence of disease, explained Dr. Sripal Bangalore, an interventional cardiologist at New York University’s Langone Medical Center who wasn’t involved in the research. There was a higher prevalence of disease in those workers who stood closest to the source of radiation: Physicians were more at risk than than nurses, who in turn were more at risk than techs.

But keep in mind:

The study was based on self-reported data, which has limitations. Studies that measure actual radiation exposure, rather than self-reports, would provide more precise data, said Dr. Sunil Rao, an associate professor of medicine at Duke who wasn’t involved in the study.


What they’re saying:

“Unfortunately I don’t think this is going to engender any kind of cultural change,”  Rao said. “Procedural-related medicine tends to have this macho culture where people don’t necessarily pay attention to their own health.”

Other experts noted that workers may not use protective gear because of time constraints.

Protective measures like leaded aprons, thyroid collars, leaded glasses, and overhead radiation shields can be used to reduce workers’ radiation exposure, but “unfortunately, in many catheterization laboratories, these measures do not exist or are not employed routinely,” said lead investigator Maria Grazia Andreassi of the Italian National Research Council.

The bottom line:

Education and awareness are key, said Andreassi. Health care workers should understand the risks they’re exposed to in catheterization labs and other settings, and take protective measures.