F. Owen Hoffman, David C. Kocher, and A. Iulian Apostoaei
Evaluations of radiation exposures of workers and the public traditionally focus on assessments of radiation dose, especially annual dose, without explicitly evaluating the health risk associated with those exposures, principally the risk of radiation-induced cancer. When dose is the endpoint of an assessment, opportunities to communicate the significance of exposures are limited to comparisons with dose criteria in regulations, doses due to natural background or medical x-rays, and doses above which a statistically significant increase of disease has been observed in epidemiologic studies. Risk assessment generally addresses the chance (probability) that specific diseases might be induced by past, present, or future exposure. The risk of cancer per unit dose will vary depending on gender, age, exposure type (acute or chronic), and radiation type. It is not uncommon to find that two individuals with the same effective dose will have substantially different risks. Risk assessment has shown, for example, that: (a) medical exposures to computed tomography scans have become a leading source of future risk to the general population, and that the risk would be increased above recently published estimates if the incidence of skin cancer and the increased risk from exposure to x-rays compared with high-energy photons were taken into account; (b) indoor radon is a significant contributor to the baseline risk of lung cancer, particularly among people who have never smoked; and (c) members of the public who were exposed in childhood to 131I in fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapons tests and were diagnosed with thyroid cancer later in life would frequently meet criteria established for federal compensation of cancers experienced by energy workers and military participants at atmospheric weapons tests. Risk estimation also enables comparisons of impacts of exposures to radiation and chemical carcinogens and other hazards to life and health. Communication of risk with uncertainty is essential for reaching informed consent, whether communicating to a larger community debating the tradeoffs of risks and benefits of an action that involves radiation exposure or communicating at the level of a physician and patient.
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