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Strengthening Radiation Protection in Medical Applications: The Updated International and European Basic Safety Standards

Delegates attending the panel discussion on radiation protection in medical applications. (Photo: J. C.Castillo/IAEA)

Limiting potential overexposure to ionizing radiation during medical procedures and strengthening patient protection were on top of the agenda at an IAEA General Conference side event that discussed the latest trends and best practices in radiation protection in the medical field. Putting the 2014 International Basic Safety Standards and the 2013 EURATOM Basic Safety Standards into practice is a key task in the coming years for regulators and health care providers alike, participants said.

Ionizing radiation can be used to diagnose and treat various non-communicable diseases. It can be used to heal patients, by reducing malignant tumours and cancer growth, but, it can also cause harm if the radiation dose is not properly applied.

The new safety standards prescribe stringent regulation in this area.

“Over the last three decades, at least 3000 patients have been reported to be affected by radiotherapy incidents and accidents,” said Peter Johnston, Director of Radiation Transport and Waste Safety at the IAEA. “This is likely grossly under-reported. Radiation accidents involving medical uses have accounted for more deaths and early acute health effects than any other type of radiation accident, including accidents at nuclear facilities.”  

Stressing the critical importance of preventing such harmful incidents, he added: “The standards represent an international consensus on what must constitute a high level of protection and safety. It is mandatory for Member States receiving technical assistance from the IAEA and is also used as the basis for many national regulations.”

Massimo Garribba, the European Commission’s Director of Nuclear Energy, Safety and the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) said that the European Union has a clear legal framework on radiation protection to be followed by national governments. “These safety standards have been updated and need to be implemented by early 2018,” he said.

Both the international and the European standards for radiation protection were recently updated taking account of the latest scientific knowledge, technological advances as well as the operational experience since the previous Basic Safety Standards were published in the mid-1990s.

The panel discussion addressed the latest improvements that are necessary when using ionising radiation in medicine as well as other related radiation protection issues. They also reviewed the actions of international and European organisations active in this field that aimed to ensure the highest level of radiation protection for the general public, workers and patients.

Emilie van Deventer, Team Leader of the Radiation Programme at the World Health Organisation (WHO) spoke of global challenges, particularly the low awareness levels of radiation risks in many countries, the lack of cooperation between health authorities and regulators, and the huge disparity in access to radiation treatment, especially for poor patients. “For us the buzz word is universal health coverage,” she said.

This view was also echoed by Sigurdur Magnusson, Chairperson of the Heads of Radiation Protection Authorities association (HERCA), who highlighted the importance of a common global approach, which would increase vigilance worldwide.

The task for the IAEA is to assist Member States in building awareness of these challenges so that they can ensure that operators, oncologists and medical physicists have good standards to follow and are implementing regulation in accordance with the latest standards, Johnston said in his concluding remarks.

Radiation accidents involving medical uses have accounted for more deaths and early acute health effects than any other type of radiation accident, including accidents at nuclear facilities.
Peter Johnston, Director, Radiation Transport and Waste Safety, IAEA
Last update: 23 June 2016