Counseling patients exposed to ionizing radiation during pregnancy
Robert L. Brent, duPont Hosp for Children

DATE: January 2006
SOURCE: Pan Am J Public Health, vol20, iss2/3, pp. 198-204

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Health physicists and knowledgeable clinicians have the responsibility to counsel women of reproductive age about the reproductive risks of ionizing radiation exposure before conception or during pregnancy. It is important to realize that lay individuals have many misconceptions about the reproductive risks of ionizing radiation. Many patients who have already had or will undergo some type of radiological test are apprehensive about the reproductive and developmental risks of diagnostic radiological procedures. Epidemiological studies and animal studies indicate that high exposures of ionizing radiation can cause miscarriage, congenital malformations, growth retardation, stillbirth, and cancer. With the exception of cancer, there are threshold exposures for those outcomes, with exposures below certain radiation doses not increasing the reproductive or developmental risks. The threshold exposure for birth defects at the most sensitive stage of development is 0.2 Gy, and the threshold for growth retardation and miscarriage is even higher. However, embryonic loss can occur from low exposures during the preimplantation and presomite stages of development (“the all or none period”). This is a stage when the embryo is more likely to die than survive malformed. The most sensitive period for the induction of mental retardation is from the 8th week to the 15th week of gestation. The threshold for deterministic effects increases after early organogenesis and also as the exposure is protracted, e.g., with radionuclides or multiple radiological procedures. Awareness that the threshold dose for developmental effects increases as the fetus develops complicates counseling because we do not have definitive data on threshold exposures at all stages of gestation. Ionizing radiation exposures prior to pregnancy represent a very low risk for the increased incidence of genetic disease in the offspring of the parents who have had radiation exposures to the ovary or testes. Counseling patients requires knowledge of embryology, genetics, radiation teratology, and the principles of teratology in order for the counselor to provide sympathetic, accurate, scholarly advice.