Mortality among medical radiation workers in the United States, 1965-2016

Int J Radiat Biol. 2022 May 16;1-25. doi: 10.1080/09553002.2021.1967508. Online ahead of print.


Background: Estimates of radiation risks following prolonged exposures at low doses and low-dose rates are uncertain. Medical radiation workers are a major component of the Million Person Study (MPS) of low-dose health effects. Annual personal dose equivalents, HP(10), for individual workers are available to facilitate dose-response analyses for lung cancer, leukemia, ischemic heart disease (IHD) and other causes of death.

Materials and methods: The Landauer, Inc. dosimetry database identified 109,019 medical and associated radiation workers first monitored 1965-1994. Vital status and cause of death were determined through 2016. Mean absorbed doses to red bone marrow (RBM), lung, heart, and other organs were estimated by adjusting the recorded HP(10) for each worker by scaling factors, accounting for exposure geometry, the energy of the incident photon radiation, sex of the worker and whether an apron was worn. There were 4 exposure scenarios: general radiology characterized by low-energy x-ray exposure with no lead apron use, interventional radiologists/cardiologists who wore aprons, nuclear medicine personnel and radiation oncologists exposed to high-energy photon radiation, and other workers. Standardized mortality ratio (SMR) analyses were performed. Cox proportional hazards models were used to estimate organ-specific radiation risks.

Results: Overall, 11,433 deaths occurred (SMR 0.60; 95%CI 0.59,0.61), 126 from leukemia other than chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), 850 from lung cancer, and 1654 from IHD. The mean duration of monitoring was 23.7 y. The excess relative rate (ERR) per 100 mGy was estimated as 0.10 (95% CI -0.34, 0.54) for leukemia other than CLL, 0.15 (0.02, 0.27) for lung cancer, and -0.10 (-0.27, 0.06) for IHD. The ERR for lung cancer was 0.16 (0.01, 0.32) among the 55,218 male workers and 0.09 (-0.19, 0.36) among the 53,801 female workers; a difference that was not statistically significant (p-value = 0.23).

Conclusions: Medical radiation workers were at increased risk for lung cancer that was higher among men than women, although this difference was not statistically significant. In contrast, the study of Japanese atomic bomb survivors exposed briefly to radiation in 1945 found females to be nearly 3 times the radiation risk of lung cancer compared with males on a relative scale. For medical workers, there were no statistically significant radiation associations with leukemia excluding CLL, IHD or other specific causes of death. Combining these data with other cohorts within the MPS, such as nuclear power plant workers and nuclear submariners, will enable more precise estimates of radiation risks at relatively low cumulative doses.

Keywords: Medical workers; cancer; heart disease; million person study; radiation epidemiology.