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The Safety of Dental X-Rays

May 20, 2013

by Alex Francis
 
While many people dread going to the dentist, it’s usually the drills and needles that are invoking fear—not the x-rays. Those are painless, right?
 
Well, it turns out that people have long been skeptical of the safety of dental x-rays, especially considering that dentists drape a lead-lined apron over you before they conveniently leave the room for the actual x-ray. (“What are they hiding from?” your suspicious side may wonder.)
 
So are there any real grounds for concern? Any reason to believe that the dental x-rays that are supposed to be helping detect and prevent maladies like cavities and tooth decay are actually slowly but surely leading you down a path toward radiation poisoning?


Little Cause for Concern


Dental X-Ray

photo by brownpau (Paulo Ordoveza) | Flickr.com


 
Radiation is naturally present in the world around us, so there’s no escaping it completely. The EPA estimates that we are exposed to about 3,000 microsieverts of ionizing radiation every year, and it is generally advisable to avoiding exposing yourself to more than 1,000 microsieverts on top of that.
 
And how do dental x-rays stack up against those numbers?
 
A single bitewing dental x-ray delivers 4 microsieverts of radiation—it’s normal to receive two of these in a single visit when you’re a kid and four when you’re an adult. A full mouth series, which includes 18 separate x-rays, transmits 88 microsieverts.
 
Compared to the 1 microsievert that you get every time you eat a banana and the 6 microsieverts that breathing air for a day impart, it seems as though dental x-rays are not all that bad.
 
And according to Dr. Joseph A. Laudie, DDS, “the health benefits of dental x-rays outweigh the apparent risks.”
 
This is particularly true for pregnant women, who have long been turned away from dental treatment for fear of harming the fetus. Dr. Howard Minkoff, the chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, commented that “A lot of dentists still fear treating pregnant women, and think, ‘What happens if I have to do an X-ray?’ or ‘What happens if I give antibiotics or local anesthesia?’ None of these are legitimate reasons not to provide appropriate care for women.”
 
Gingivitis (which is an affliction that 60-75% of pregnant women are faced with) can lead to periodontal diseases and then to tooth loss, and active tooth decay in mothers puts children at high risk for developing the same problems.

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