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Health & Science

Radiation Exposure Is A Challenge for Houston’s Medical And Aerospace Workers

Pumps & Pipes is an annual Houston for engineers and innovators from the city’s top three industries: energy, medicine and aerospace. At the 9th annual conference, there was a special focus on an occupational hazard shared by both astronauts and heart surgeons: radiation.



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CT scans, MRIs, and x-rays have revolutionized modern medicine, but these imaging technologies also come with risks.

"We're exposing our patients to more and more radiation, because almost all of the diagnostic tools are radiation-based. In addition to that, the interventionalists are being exposed to more and more radiation," said Dr. Alan Lumsden, the chairman of cardiovascular surgery at Houston Methodist Hospital.

Interventionalists are cardiac surgeons who use catheter-based procedures to clear blockages, insert stents and do other work on the heart and blood vessels. They use fluoroscopy, which is like an x-ray movie that helps the see inside the blood vessels.

"We may get exposed to radiation three to four hours a day, four to five days a week, probably for forty years," Lumsden said. "And there are increasing concerns about radiation exposure: cataracts, malignancies, and so anything that can actually reduce the exposure to radiation is actually a great benefit."

The surgeons and technicians at Methodist use radiation sensors and also wear lead shielding. But lead is heavy and can cause orthopedic problems. So the profession is on the hunt for other solutions.

This all sounds quite familiar to the NASA scientists who study radiation in outer space.

"That can really affect not just the astronauts, but the electronics, it can disrupt the computers, the guidance systems," said Michael Hess, associate director of engineering at Johnson Space Center.

"You have to design everything to be radiation susceptible and recoverable. Then we've got to design for the human to stay alive in the middle of all of that as well," he added.

But you can't just wrap a spaceship in lead.

"You would like to bring more and more mass, but you can't. So we're looking at things like ‘Well, can you design a spacecraft such that the water that you need to consume is water jackets around where the crew is going to live?' So the water could provide some amount of your radiation protections," he explained.

Right now there are only six astronauts living on the space station, compared to millions of healthcare workers.

Medicine is a much bigger market when it comes to developing new tools for reducing radiation exposure. Hess said NASA hopes to eventually borrow and adapt those medical tools for space travel.

"They're talking about other things in the medical center. The fact that they can bring them to market much quicker because their doctors are in the radiation zone every day."

Potential developments might include advanced dosimeters, different types of shielding, and possibly a medication that doctors could take to reduce their susceptibility to radiation poisoning or long-term effects of radiation, Hess said.

A two-year mission to Mars would expose astronauts to galactic cosmic rays and radioactive particles from our own sun. The astronauts' estimated risk of dying from cancer increases from about 15 percent on earth to as high as 25 percent after completing a Mars mission.