Background: Diagnostic X-rays are the largest man-made source of radiation exposure to the general population, contributing about 14% of the total annual exposure worldwide from all sources. Although diagnostic X-rays provide great benefits, that their use involves some small risk of developing cancer is generally accepted. Our aim was to estimate the extent of this risk on the basis of the annual number of diagnostic X-rays undertaken in the UK and in 14 other developed countries.
Methods: We combined data on the frequency of diagnostic X-ray use, estimated radiation doses from X-rays to individual body organs, and risk models, based mainly on the Japanese atomic bomb survivors, with population-based cancer incidence rates and mortality rates for all causes of death, using life table methods.
Findings: Our results indicate that in the UK about 0.6% of the cumulative risk of cancer to age 75 years could be attributable to diagnostic X-rays. This percentage is equivalent to about 700 cases of cancer per year. In 13 other developed countries, estimates of the attributable risk ranged from 0.6% to 1.8%, whereas in Japan, which had the highest estimated annual exposure frequency in the world, it was more than 3%.
Interpretation: We provide detailed estimates of the cancer risk from diagnostic X-rays. The calculations involved a number of assumptions and so are inevitably subject to considerable uncertainty. The possibility that we have overestimated the risks cannot be ruled out, but that we have underestimated them substantially seems unlikely.