Each year more than four million CT scans are performed on children, and they are increasing the risk for future cancer, a new study suggests.

Researchers writing online last month in JAMA Pediatrics counted the number of CT scans performed on children under 15 from 1996 to 2010 in seven American health care systems, and calculated the average dose of radiation delivered to the head, abdomen, chest or spine.

There was wide variability, but the scientists found that up to a quarter of children with a single abdominal scan received 20 millisieverts or higher. (The average dose for a chest X-ray is 0.1 millisievert.)

The researchers estimate that one year’s CT scanning in the United States would produce 4,879 future cancers in children under 15 — a small but significant increase.

The researchers calculate that if the highest doses — those in the top one-quarter — could be reduced to match the average dose, future cancers would be reduced by 43 percent.

The lead author, Diana L. Miglioretti, a professor of biostatistics at the University of California, Davis, recommends that parents ask questions: How will a scan change my child’s medical care? Are there other tests that can be used?

“If the doctor says he needs the CT,” Dr. Miglioretti said, “then the parent should ask, ‘What are you doing to make sure the dose is as low as possible?’”


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