Are Medical X-Rays A Major Cause of Cancer and Heart Disease?

By Burton Goldberg

Dr. John Gofman’s revolutionary work could prevent the deaths of millions of people with simple, inexpensive monitoring techniques.

Suppose you read that medical x-rays were responsible for fully half the incidence of cancer in this country – what would your reaction be? Wouldn’t your reaction be based to a great extent on where you read it? If it was a banner headline on the National Enquirer, you would instantly dismiss it. If it was a page one story in the New York Times, however, you would give it credibility.

Still, no matter where you read it, your reaction would probably be one of disbelief. “Impossible,” you might think, “Absurd.” Why? Would it be because you believe that contemporary medicine is based on thoroughly tested science, and that if medical x-rays were a major cause of cancer, this would have been discovered early on, and never allowed to happen? If so, do you have any evidence for such a belief – or is it reflective only of blind faith in the medical profession?

X-rays have been considered a valuable medical tool ever since their discovery in 1895. Yet it has been known for over 70 years – and it is universally acknowledged today – that x-rays cause genetic mutations and cancer.

The belief that medical x-rays are not a major cause of cancer is based on three basic assumptions: First, that risk from minimal doses of radiation is just hypothetical. Second, that doctors and technicians administer the minimum dose. And third, that repeated x-ray exposures are not cumulative in their effect. Search, and you will find overwhelming evidence that none of these are true. But first, you need to know where to look; and second, you have to look at the raw data without bias.

The evidence, in fact, is published in peer-reviewed, mainstream medical journals. The problem is that all too often, they are published only in the more obscure journals read by only a few thousand specialists. And, because of the threatening nature of the data to our current medical system, the findings are rarely played up by the mainstream media.

For example, a paper was recently published entitled “Breast Cancer Mortality After Diagnostic Radiography.”

It showed the results of a study sponsored by the National Cancer Institute that examined the correlation of breast cancer mortality with receiving diagnostic x-ray exposure for scoliosis [curvature of the spine]. These women, who had an average of 25 diagnostic x-rays taken, had a 70% greater risk of dying of breast cancer than the general population. One of the paper’s key conclusions was: “Consistent with radiation as a causative factor, risk of dying of breast cancer increased significantly with number of radiographic examinations in which the breast was exposed and with increasing cumulative radiation dose to the breast [italics added].” So much for assumption number three. But the chances are that your doctor – or your oncologist or radiologist – has not seen this report, because it was published in Spine. Spine has a worldwide circulation of less than 8,000, consisting primarily of physical and medical rehabilitation specialists.

Let us look at the second assumption – that doctors and technicians administer the minimum dose. In the September, 1998, issue of Diagnostic Imaging, Joel E. Gray, Ph.D., former Professor of Medical Physics at the Mayo Clinic, reported on an earlier nationwide survey of 300 radiographic facilities. In this study, the same radiographic procedures were performed on identical test dummies. Seventy-five percent of the facilities tested gave higher doses than were needed to produce clear images. For chest and spine images the difference was as much 8.5-fold. For gastrointestinal exams the difference was as much as 27.5-fold.

When it comes to assumption number one, there are no studies that can prove that small doses of x-rays are risk free. Just a single photon can damage a cell’s DNA, and send it on the path to malignancy. A single chest x-ray exam of only 0.015 rads (“radiation absorbed dose”) will deliver 30 million photons per gram of tissue, containing approximately 675 million cell nuclei. A one-minute fluoroscopic exam of 5 rads delivers almost 10 billion photons per gram of tissue.

The FDA estimates that seven out of 10 Americans received at least one x-ray last year. How many did you and your family members receive? How many have you received over your lifetime? What was their dosage? Do you know? Do your doctors know?

The person who probably knows as much about the effects of radiation as anyone in the world is John Gofman, M.D., Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California at Berkeley, and on the faculty of the University of California Medical School in San Francisco (UCSF). Dr. Gofman earned his doctorate in nuclear/physical chemistry at UC Berkeley, where his faculty advisor was Glenn Seaborg, later chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). In the 1960s, the AEC asked Dr. Gofman to establish a Biomedical Research Division at the Livermore National Laboratory for the purpose of evaluating the health effects of all types of nuclear activities. From 1963 through 1965, Dr. Gofman was the division’s first director, and concurrently associate director of the entire Laboratory.

Dr. Gofman has published six books on the effects of ionizing radiation on health, the latest being Radiation from Medical Procedures in the Pathogenesis of Cancer and Ischemic Heart Disease. In this 700-page tome, Dr. Gofman presents study after study that point to medical x-rays not only playing a major role in causing 50% of cases of cancer – but also in causing 60% of the cases of coronary heart disease (CHD). The probable mechanism, Dr. Gofman explains, is radiation-induction of mutations in the coronary arteries, resulting in dysfunctional clones (mini-tumors) of smooth muscle cells (more on this in future issues of Alternative Medicine.

Dr. Gofman is quick to point out that, first of all, he is not against medical x-rays – only their use at needlessly high dose levels. And second, that x-rays are not by themselves the only cause of these diseases, but are a necessary co-actor. What this means is that medical x-rays are not solely responsible for our epidemic of cancer and CHD, but that when combined with other factors, they can and do cause the onset of these diseases. Reduce the amount of exposure to medical x-rays and the incidence of cancer and CHD is proportionally reduced.

Dr. Gofman shows how x-ray dosages can easily on average be reduced by 50% from present levels. He points out procedures as simple and inexpensive as taking frequent dose measurements. Proper training for technicians is essential. Dr. Fred Mettler, Chief of Radiology at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, points out that a CT scan typically exposes a patient to 2 to 3 rads compared to 0.015 rads for a conventional chest x-ray – that’s over 100 times more radiation. A fluoroscope typically delivers 5 rads per minute – that’s over 300 times more radiation than a standard x-ray. Radiographers also need to compensate for the age and size of patients. And specialists need to be aware of how much previous exposure their patients have had, and be judicious in ordering only necessary imaging.

Physicians also need to be aware of diagnostic imaging devices that do not use ionizing radiation – such as MRIs for neurological and musculo-skeletal conditions, and thermography for breast screening – and able to detect cancer years earlier than mammography. If Dr. Gofman’s hypothesis is right, making these prudent steps the rule rather than the exception would save at least 250,000 lives per year.

Although a few radiologists have taken exception to Dr. Gofman’s work, none have refuted it in any way. Why, then, are these simple, life-saving measures not embraced by the entire medical community? Why is this story not on the front page of the and every other newspaper in America?

Two hundred and fifty million x-rays will be performed in the United States this year. At a conservative average cost of $50 per x-ray, that is an industry with annual sales of $12.5 billion. Diagnostic x-ray imaging is a cornerstone of much of mainstream medicine. Nothing that weakens the public’s perception of the value and safety of x-rays is likely to be publicized.

Those radiologists who have criticized Dr. Gofman’s work have criticized it on the basis that it might scare patients away from having any x-rays at all, when they might very well benefit from the procedure. This brings up a very serious issue of a patient’s right to know. Says Dr. Gofman, “We doubt that x-ray practitioners would want to assert that x-rays are the one agent, in all of medicine, where referring physicians and patients must be told about only the benefits, and must be kept uninformed about dosage and risk.”

Why should the idea that medical x-rays are a major cause of death be such a surprise? This is by no means the first instance of medical treatment proving hazardous to one’s health. To quote from an editorial in the November 11, 1998 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA): “Iatrogenic (physician-caused) disease caused by conventional medicine is a major cause of death and hospitalization in the United States.” In that same issue, JAMA estimated that 106,000 hospital patients die and 2.2 million are injured each year by adverse reactions to prescription drugs – not including cases where errors are involved.

In November, 1999, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report that estimated that medical errors kill between 44,000 and 98,000 people a year in hospitals alone. Putting these two reports together makes receiving conventional medical treatment in a hospital the number three cause of death in the United States. But these statistics haven’t stopped people from using drugs or going to the hospital. Rather, this information should be saving lives by spurring hospitals to incorporate sweeping reforms to improve patient safety. The same should be true of the x-ray industry.

There is a revolution going on in medicine right now. It is the growth of what we call alternative medicine – a movement typified by the absolute minimization of toxic medical modalities. This is being driven not by the efforts of healthcare professionals but by the market demands of patients, who are becoming better informed and no longer blindly accepting unnecessary and unacceptable “risk-benefit” ratios. Dr. Gofman has information to help the public not only protect itself but to help get the x-ray industry to clean house, through patient right-to-know policies.

To receive a wealth of eye-opening – and quite possibly life-saving – information contact: Dr. John Gofman, Committee for Nuclear Responsibility, P.O. Box 421993, San Francisco, CA 94142. Tel: 415-776-8299 Website:

Heart MD Institute has reprinted this article with permission from Burton Goldberg (© 2008 Do No Harm Productions, LLC).


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