Limited radiation exposure doesn’t cause infertility

Limited radiation exposure doesn’t cause infertility

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Friday, August 9, 2013, Chandigarh, India


ILL-informed radiographers have very exaggerated notions about the health effects of ionising radiation. They seldom get a chance to clear such doubts. Often, they are reluctant to ask whether anyone of them is likely to suffer from infertility and impotence due to radiation exposure.

The occupational doses to radiographers are a very small fraction of the dose limits prescribed by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. No adverse effect due to radiation exposure is expected at these levels. Sterility due to radiation exposure is a deterministic effect. These effects do not occur until the radiation dose reaches a minimum threshold. For instance, the threshold dose for permanent sterility in the male for a single absorbed dose in the testes is about 3.5Gy (3,500mGy) to 6Gy (6,000mGy).

Temporary sterility may occur at a lower dose of 0.15Gy (150mGy) after a few months post-exposure. It may continue for some months. (Gy is a unit of radiation dose. The radiation dose is one Gy when the radiation energy absorbed is one Joule per kg. Since Gy is large, milligray (mGy) — one thousandth of a Gy — is commonly used. The annual dose limits for radiation workers recommended by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) is 100mSv over five years with the maximum not to exceed 30mSv any year. For X-rays, Gy and Sv are the same. Average dose to radiation workers is only a fraction of an mSv to a few mSv).

As the doses received by different groups of radiation workers are several hundred to several thousand times lower than the threshold dose, no worker will suffer sterility due to radiation exposure.

Workers in India have been handling radiation sources for the past several decades. There has not been even a single instance of any worker becoming permanently sterile due to occupational radiation exposure. There is no scientific evidence that workers’ radiation exposure will cause impotence.

According to WHO, 10 to 15 per cent of Indian couples are sterile. An exposed person may not get the right advice if he approaches specialists who are not equipped to offer counselling. Scholarly discussion with facts and figures on radiation and its effects has a role to play during medical counselling, but that alone may not reassure an exposed worker.

This writer asked Dr Robert Brent, presently distinguished Professor of Pediatrics, Radiology and Pathology, Thomas Jefferson University, whether he has an information package to counsel radiation workers. Dr Brent has counselled thousands of patients, particularly pregnant women, on effect of radiation on the unborn, during his distinguished career over several decades. He addressed the topic at the Health Physics Society Ask the Expert (HPS ATE) website.

“We have many answers on the HPS ATE website that pertain to these questions. However, the anxiety level of the questioner is usually high and they want a personal answer to their questions and concerns. Each exposure is different, as are the circumstances; generic answers do not help these contacts. They want the personal touch, and that is what we give them. The risk of cancer from low exposures of radiation is anxiety provoking and an erudite generic paragraph just does not solve the contact’s concern.”

Counselling persons who were exposed to radiation is a challenging job. A specialist can do it competently if he uses all the resources available to him.

The writer is former Secretary, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board



About ksparthasarathy

I am a former Secretary of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. I am a former Raja Ramanna Fellow in the Department of Atomic Energy. Free lance journalism is my hobby
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