Reagan Administration Should Enforce X-Ray Safety Laws

If before, during or after receiving a medical or dental x-ray, you have wondered if you were overexposed to radiation, consider the unrequited crusade of one Senator Jennings Randolph (D-WV) who retired in 1985.
For thirteen years the venerable Senator urged legislation to establish minimum standards for the accreditation of x-ray machine operations. He finally succeeded when his Consumer-Patient Radiation Health and Safety Act of 1931 was enacted into law on August 13, 1981. These standards were required to be issued not later than August 13, 1982. They were designed to be mandatory for federal hospitals and related facilities. A model statute and guidelines for the states was also supposed to be issued to goad the states to clean up their act in this area. The deadline was the same. More than three years later, the Reagan government has still not issued the standards nor the model statute of guidelines and is in clear violation of this federal law.

Recently, I spoke with a special assistant to Margaret H. Heckler, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, who is responsible for implementing this Act. At first he tried to say that there were many problems and complications with the standards. When I pointed out to him that both the standards and the model statute were complete and awaiting the Secretary’s signature more than two years after the proposed standards were published in the Federal Register, he indicated there were still unresolved matters. When pressed further, candor emerged, ‘tie jut don’t believe in that law,” he said.

A few days later in August, Secretary Heckler sent a letter to the appropriate Congressional Committees asking for repeal of the law.

Violating its own laws in becoming a tradition for the conservative Reagan Administration. On numerous occasions the courts have ruled against just such lawlessness. No doubt, this has encouraged The American Society of Radiologic Technologists, whose members number 15,500 people who want competence to precede the taking of x-rays, to file a law suit in Washington to compel Secretary Heckler to issue the standards and model statute.

Back to you and those x-rays. Here is why Senator Randolph was concerned. Thousands of x-ray machine operators have no formal training whatsoever. Others have some pick-up-on-the-job hunches. In Tennessee, for example, patients are receiving excessive doses of radiation from x-ray machines rim by untrained people. “There is a lot of poor practice — poor film, repeat x-rays, too much of the body is exposed, or shields are not used,” says Dianne George of the Tennessee Society of Radiologic Technologists.

Some of these over-exposures are due also to poor inspection of machines and physicians and dentists who know too little about the hazards of ionizing radiation. Tennessee state regulatory officials have cited deplorable conditions such as only 10 percent of all facilities with x-rays, including hospitals, could pass complete inspection.

Or several dental x-ray machines at one large hospital were leaking radiation for years. One Memphis physician was found shooting chest x-rays with beams that covered the entire body — gonads included — and part of the room! If you are over 18 in Tennessee, you can operate an x-ray machine. That’s all it takes.

Every year, 7 out of 10 Americans have medical or dental x-ray exams. According to Dr. John W. Gofman’s important new book “X-rays: Health Effects of Common Exams” (Sierra Club Books, 2034 Fillmore Street, San Francisco, California 94115), x-ray exposure can cause cancer, leukemia, and congenital and genetic injuries. For- the first time, this book takes over forty types of common diagnostic x-ray exams and calculates the risk of future cancer or leukemia.

“Because risk is proportional to radiation dose,” says Gofman and his co-author, Egan O’Connor, “the key to reducing risk is to identify the low-dose x-ray offices and to avoid careless offices where patients can receive totally unnecessary cancer risks from x-ray doses up to 100 times higher than needed.” The authors estimate that, without eliminating a single x-ray exam or its benefits, simply by reducing aver-age x-ray doses to 1/3 of their current level, 1.5 million cancers can be prevented in the U.S. over the next generation.

A contribution to this goal would be for the Reagan Administration to implement and enforce the Radiation Act of 1968, that deals with the machines, and the Randolph law of 1981 that advances the skills of the x-ray machine operators.

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