Women have been and remain assured that radiation exposure from pre-menopausal mammography is trivial, and similar to that from a routine chest x-ray, about 1/1000th of a rad (radiation absorbed dose). However, the practice of taking two mammograms for each breast results in 500 times greater radiation exposure of half a rad, focused on each breast, rather than on the entire chest. Thus, pre-menopausal women undergoing annual routine mammography over a ten-year period are exposed to a total of about 5 rads for each breast. This approximates to the very high radiation whole body exposure of women one mile away from where the atom bombs were dropped in Japan.
This information is not new. Furthermore, as recognized by the prestigious National Academy of Science in 1972, the pre-menopausal breast is highly sensitive to radiation, each rad exposure increasing the risk of breast cancer by one percent. This results in a cumulative 10 percent increased risk of breast cancer over ten years of pre-menopausal mammography. This warning was subsequently emphasized in my 1978 The Politics of Cancer, "Whatever you may be told, refuse routine mammograms, especially if you are pre-menopausal. The x-ray may increase your chances of getting cancer."
This warning against premenopausal mammography was further detailed in a 2001 scientific article, "The Dangers and Unreliability of Mammography: Breast Self Examination As A Safe Effective and Practical Alternative," published in the prestigious International Journal of Services. This was co-authored by Dr. Rosalie Bertell, a leading international expert on the dangers of radiation, the late Barbara Seaman, founder and leader of the women's breast cancer movement, and myself.
Furthermore, the hidden risks of radiation are up to four-times higher for the two percent of woman who are silent carriers of a gene known as the A-T, and highly sensitive to radiation. This accounts for up to ten percent of all breast cancers diagnosed annually.
For these reasons, annual pre-menopausal mammography should be phased-out in favor of monthly breast-self examination (BSE), and annual examination by a gynecologist or trained nurse. This recommendation against premenopausal mammography has been very recently endorsed by the prestigious Task Force of the Department of Health and Human Services. The Task Force also recommends that mammography be delayed until the age of 50, when the breast is much less sensitive to radiation. The recommendation is also supported by the National Breast Cancer Coalition.
This information is critical, especially in view of the current high incidence of breast cancer. Disturbingly, this has increased by about twenty percent since 1975 in spite of routine premenopausal mammography, and its multi-billion dollar insurance costs. Such funds should instead be directed to establishing BSE clinics nationwide.
Samuel S. Epstein, M.D. is professor emeritus of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health; Chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition; and a former President of the Rachel Carson Trust. His awards include the 1989 Right Livelihood Award and the 2005 Albert Schweitzer Golden Grand Medal for International Contributions to Cancer Prevention. Dr. Epstein has authored 270 scientific articles and 15 books on cancer prevention, including the groundbreaking The Politics of Cancer (1979), and most recently Toxic Beauty (2009, BenBella Books: www.benbellabooks.com) about carcinogens in cosmetics and personal care products.