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Radiation refers to cancer-causing energy that is transmitted in the form of high-speed particles or waves by the sun. Humans make use of man-made radiation in nuclear power plants, cancer treatments and x-ray devices, and have traditionally depended on radiation shielding materials such as lead aprons to protect them from radiation exposure.

While lead aprons might be a great way of protecting against radiation exposure, it turns out that they also increase the chances of lead poisoning for those who use and work with these aprons. And considering that even low level exposure to lead can be toxic for both children and adults, it might finally be the time to permanently switch to lead-free shielding materials.

The Study

A study published in the Journal of the American College of Radiology seems to confirm this line of thought. Jamie Shoag, MD at NYU Langone Medical Center and Kevin Burns, MD at Montefiore Medical Center, tested 172 lead shields that were used for fluoroscopy and x-ray at an academic medical center in NYC. They found that more than 50% of the shields had lead dust on the surface.

The Testing Method

Each shield was tested for external lead dust via the Flame Atomic Absorption Spectrometry (FAAS), a quantitative dust wipe analysis conducted in the lab and a qualitative on-site test. Researchers also used the chi-squared test to determine the association of lead present on the surface of the shield with factors such as sheet thickness, the type of shield, age, radiographic appearance and storage method.

The Results

The presence of lead was detected to be around 63% using the FAAS method and around 50% using the qualitative method. The dust detected ranged between untraceable quantities to 998 micrograms per sq. foot.

Limitations

Having chosen the right upper quadrant area for qualitative analysis and the middle area for quantitative analysis, the authors conceded that these areas might not represent the exact level of lead dust on the entire surface of the shield. “We did attempt to mitigate this limitation by performing a four-quadrant analysis on a subset of shields, which showed consistent results in all locations,” they state.

Even so, these findings prompted authors to urge all imaging centers and departments to switch to lead-free shielding materials as soon as possible. While it has been acknowledged that a single-site sample might have posed limitations to the study’s results, this was the first study of its kind and a standardized protocol for testing these shields is yet to be developed.

What Lies Ahead?

The authors have already called for more research to determine the clinical impact of these findings and further studies might shine some light on the limitations and dangers posed by existing x-ray and radiation shielding materials.

Blood levels could also be monitored to determine whether lead was transferred into the body while hand wipes could be a great way of determining if lead dust was transferred from lead aprons to the hands and bodies of technicians, physicians and nurses.

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