When someone mentions the word radiation, what comes to mind? The atomic bomb? Marie Curie? X-rays? We are exposed to radiation every day by just existing on this planet. Cellphones, medical imaging, household appliances, the sun, cosmic rays during air flight, and radon are just a few examples of sources of radiation.
Typically, the amount and type that we are exposed to on a daily basis is not overly harmful. However, during pregnancy, how much radiation is safe?
What is radiation?
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission defines radiation as the energy given off by matter. One type, called non-ionizing radiation, poses no significant risk to living organisms, including pregnant women. However, a second type, ionizing radiation, can actually cause harmful changes to plants, animals, and humans.
Ionizing radiation can be further broken down into two physical forms: electromagnetic radiation and particle radiation. Radiation used in medical imaging and present in sunlight and radio waves is electromagnetic radiation, while the release of alpha and beta particles are classified as particle radiation. Radioactive elements such as radium and uranium release particles during radioactive decay.
How is radiation measured?
The energy given off and then deposited into living tissue is often measured in units called roentgen equivalent man or rem, named after the German scientist, Wilhelm Röntgen, who discovered x-rays. While we are around radiation daily, it’s important to know that certain activities expose individuals to higher levels than others.
For example, a flight from New York City to Los Angeles will expose an individual to the same amount of radiation, 1 mrem, as living next to a nuclear power plant for one year. A chest x-ray exposes an individual to approximately 8 times as much radiation as a cross-country flight. And an individual would have to take approximately 280 cross-country flights to get the same radiation exposure as smoking cigarettes for one year.
How is radiation useful?
While ionizing radiation can pose a risk to living organisms, it also has a number of beneficial uses. Smoke detectors, certain cancer treatments, and sterilization of medical equipment would not be available or possible without ionizing radiation.
Computed tomography or CT scans, mammography, and x-rays are just a few of the common medical imaging technologies that use radiation. It’s important to note that an ultrasound, which monitors fetal growth and development during pregnancy, uses a form of non-ionizing radiation — which makes it very safe for both mother and baby.
The Transportation Security Administration also uses non-ionizing radiation in all imaging technology and metal detectors at airports so it is also deemed safe for individuals, including pregnant women, to pass through.
When does radiation pose a risk?
Radiation, specifically ionizing radiation, can have detrimental effects on the human body, especially when an individual is exposed to high doses. Fortunately, the American Academy of Family Physicians reports that only pregnancies exposed to very large doses (more than the dose from 500 chest x-rays) may be at risk for damage caused, such as birth defects or cancer. This means that in general, the exposure that we have to radiation on a daily basis is not expected to be harmful during pregnancy.
More specifically, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) guidelines on air travel during pregnancy suggest that radiation presents a negligible risk for the occasional pregnant air traveler. Additionally, ACOG guidelines on diagnostic imaging during pregnancy suggest that exposure through most medical imaging, including radiography, CT scan, and nuclear medicine imaging, is at a dose much lower than the exposure associated with fetal harm.
The guidelines report birth defects such as small head size, problems with growth, and intellectual disabilities as the most common adverse effects from high-dose radiation exposure. We know that at least in terms of intellectual disability, data from atomic bomb survivors tells us the risk is greatest with exposure to high doses at 8-15 weeks of gestation.
How can I stay safe during pregnancy?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends using the principles of time, distance, and shielding to provide protection from radiation.
Aircrew, radiologists, medical technologists, and other workers with occupational exposure should limit the time of additional exposure when pregnant. Additionally, all workers should know their rights to a safe work place under Occupational Safety and Health Administration law.
Just as the heat from a fire reduces as you move farther away, the dose of radiation decreases dramatically as you increase your distance from the source. Luckily, most of us will never encounter a radiological emergency such as the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster; however, it is important to know that should one occur, the best thing to do for you and your baby would be to follow the direction of emergency response team members and distance yourself from possible harm and exposure to radiation.
While ionizing radiation can be very damaging to the human body, substances such as lead, concrete, and water can shield it, protecting our bodies from harm. This is why we are asked to wearing a shielding apron when undergoing dental x-rays. Using the correct shield will greatly reduce or eliminate the dose an individual receives. The American Dental Association recommends the use of aprons and thyroid shields for pregnant patients, and the use of dosimeters and other work practice controls for pregnant operators of x-rays.
So, am I safe?
Generally, mothers and babies are not expected to be at risk if exposed to a normal, small amount of radiation. However, it is always recommended to discuss your pregnancy with a medical provider before exposing yourself to any source.
Are you a first-time mom to-be? We know it can be scary, but we’re here to help. For more pregnancy tips, check out our Pregnancy Roadmap and learn all about what to expect during each of your stages of pregnancy. You’ll also want to know what foods and medicines to avoid while pregnant. Once baby is born, you’ll know just how to take care of her and watch her develop into a beautiful child.