Press Parrots the Manufacturer’s Line on “Virtual” Colonoscopies

virtual colonoscopyWhat is the truth about them?

Regular optical colonoscopies often require drinking upward of a gallon of laxative fluid beforehand, then being probed with an endoscope. “Virtual colonoscopies” use CT scans to construct images of the colon, as well as to digitally “clean” the organ. A new study, funded by industry, says that virtual colonoscopies are as effective as standard colonoscopy at finding polyps, or growths on the lining of the colon, one centimeter or larger. Most polyps are benign, but some can turn cancerous.
What the study—and the press release—fail to mention is that these CT scans will expose you to extremely high levels of radiation, which dramatically increases your risk of cancer. So this new technology may actually cause cancer instead of protecting you from it!
What are the major media reporting about this? Every article we see is favorable to virtual colonoscopy; if they mention the radiation issue at all, it is dismissed offhandedly. They don’t even question the fact that the study was funded by industry, or think to look at the results critically.

Two years ago, scientists within the FDA complained that their concerns over the radiation exposure from virtual colonoscopies were being ignored by the agency. After an FDA official recommended approving General Electric’s application to use CT scans for colon cancer screenings, two noted physicians who worked for FDA—a gastroenterologist who trained at Oxford University and the Mayo Clinic, and a former professor of radiology at both Yale and Cornell—expressed their concerns that virtual colonoscopies could “expose a number of Americans to a risk of radiation that is unwarranted and may lead to instances of solid organ abdominal cancer” and that “the increased radiation exposure to the population could be substantial and would raise a serious public health/public policy issue.”
How much risk were the scientists talking about?
Human beings, on average, receive a background dose of 2.4 mSv (millisieverts, the standard measurement of radiation) per year from natural cosmic and terrestrial radiation. So that’s our baseline.
There have been three major sources of information on the correlation between radiation and cancer risk:

This is what we’ve learned from them:

  • Colonoscopy CT scans average 10 mSv per scan. A whole-body CT scan is 20 mSv or more. Patients who have multiple CT scans have up to 12% higher than average risk of cancer.
  • If you get two virtual colonoscopies, you get as much radiation as the maximum allowed per year for nuclear industry workers—20 mSv. Nuclear workers, by the way, have a 27.5% higher death rate from cancer than the general population.
  • If you receive ten CT scans in your life, you get as much radiation as did the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—about 200 mSv. The A-bomb survivors have had 46% more deaths from leukemia and 11% more solid cancer occurrences (tumors) than the general population.
  • Some patients in the CT scan study had received as many as 70 scans over seven years, and received 579 mSv—nearly three times the amount of radiation received by people standing just 1.5 miles away from the epicenter of an atomic bomb, and about 21 times the amount received by those 2.5 miles away. It is unlikely that any one doctor of these patients was aware of all the scans they had.
  • An estimated 70 million CT scans are performed in the United States every year, with as many as 14,000 people dying every year of radiation-induced cancers.

Life Extension founder William Falloon reports:

As risky as properly done CT scans are, reports published at the end of 2009 exposed instances of major medical centers being so sloppy in adjusting the settings on their CT scanners that patients were exposed to up to eight times the normal radiation dose.

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, children receive four million CT scans per year, and of course their bodies are far more vulnerable to radiation than older people. William Falloon again:

Children are more vulnerable to the long-term effects of the DNA damage inflicted by X-rays. In one particularly heinous case, a 30-month-old child was exposed to more than 60 minutes of continuous CT scans when the normal time period is only 2-3 minutes. The hospital’s radiology manager called the overdose a “rogue act of insanity” while the chief of the state’s regulatory division said it was “one of the more egregious, extreme cases that I have ever seen.”

The journal Radiation Research just published a study showing that children who were under ten years of age when they were exposed to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki radiation have had a 58% higher death rate than average.
This same study also presents the strongest evidence to date that cancer risk not only exists at low doses of radiation, but may be even greater per unit of dose than at higher doses—and that ionizing radiation is associated with non-cancer diseases involving circulatory, respiratory, and digestive systems.
If you can’t avoid getting a CT scan or an x-ray, you need to know that the damage from radiation comes from hydroxyl free radicals, and you can protect yourself against them by taking antioxidants for several days before and immediately after receiving the radiation. The best antioxidants in this case are vitamin C, alpha-lipoic acid, n-acetylcysteine (NAC), mixed-tocopherol vitamin E, selenium, and CoQ10.
You should also take antioxidants before a long airplane trip because of the surprising amount of radiation you receive during flights. Airline crew and frequent fliers can receive up to about 5 mSv per year from their hours in the air.
We’ve talked a lot about “virtual” colonoscopies in this article, but regular optical colonoscopies have their own risks too, of course. For one thing, endoscopic equipment is disinfected but not necessarily sterilized because the flexible tubing can be destroyed by the sterilization process. This can lead to illness, which has prompted a recent lawsuit in Oregon. And an investigation revealed that between 2004 and 2009, over 11,000 colonoscopies were performed at three different Veterans Administration hospitals using improperly sterilized equipment; as a result of those colonoscopies, 13 of those veterans tested positive for hepatitis B, 34 for hepatitis C and 6 for HIV, according to the VA.
The rate of bowel puncture from regular colonoscopies is also a serious risk, not to mention complications from sedatives and possible long-term injury to the anal sphincter, which could lead to incontinence. We need a much better and safer test than colonoscopy—and we should be able to get one in the form of a blood or stool test. There are stool tests now, but with too many false positives and negatives. The technology needs serious refinement, but gets little attention because colonoscopy is such a thriving and lucrative industry. Who exactly is going to fund research into a safe, low-cost test when a high-cost (albeit dangerous) test is already available?


  1. Thank you for the info. As a nurse practitioner the standard of care is for everyone of age 50 to have a colonoscopy screening. I do not agree with this standard but must make the pt aware. Now I am even more aware of the risks of colonoscopy but virtual is even worse. thank you

    1. Isn’t the fluid you drink before optical colonoscopies radioactive?
      Why isn’t ultra sound used to scan the colon.

    2. A much wiser approach than risky colonoscopy would probably be the “Pill Camera”. Taken orally, the “Pill Camera” goes everywhere the patient’s food does and transmits pictures of the complete GI tract, taking strobelight illuminated pictures at the rate of two/second, transmitting them to a data recorder as it travels.
      When the “Pill Camera” exits, its job is complete and it is discarded.

      1. Is the Pillcam available in the U.S., approved for use, effective, and will insurance pay for it, and – if not – how much would it cost out of pocket? I have a family history of colon cancer, have had 4 colonoscopies ( the last one of which was handled very incompetently,) and all results were completely negative in all of them . I am 72, and do not want to be exposed to any more radiation. No more mammograms, no more colonoscopies, etc – I’ve had enough.

  2. So why are they still giving us women those high radiation mammograms? I’ve had 5 of these in 2 years and that can’t be good. And by the way they found nothing and I was told I had a similar “spot” for the last 20 years. When I asked about thermography I was told it wasn’t approved by the cancer society. The cancer society receives a good deal of funding from the manufacturers of, you guessed it, the radiation testing machines..

    1. You can get a thermogram on your own as long as you are willing to pay out of pocket for it.

    2. I just had Thermography done instead of a Mammogram for the radiation issue. I have had only 2 mammograms and will never have another one. Thermography is very inexpensive only $175.
      It makes me mad that we are forced to be nuked every time we fly. I drive instead of fly.
      My husband had a colonoscopy and it screwed up his system for 2 years. I will never have one after what I saw him go through! My parents never had any of these tests.

    3. Ladies!
      Why do you need permission or the blessing of the Cancer Industry to use Thermography?
      I’m a 57 year old woman and have never had a mammogram. Why…..because I did my homework and have been collecting data on this procedure since in my 40’s. It’s a cash cow for the industry and nothing else.
      I’ve changed Dr.’s when they have demanded I get a mammogram. Early on I wrote The American Thermography Association and asked for a recommendation in my area of the USA. Now a days you can go online and type in Thermography and a city name and come up with multiple clinics that will perform them.
      I can only burst out laughing when women say their insurance won’t pay for them and that’s why they get mammograms. Well Ladies, then take your free insurance poison and I’ll give up the cost of a pair of shoes and pay for my own thermography. I have a friend that is a respected Radiologist and he agrees with me completely regarding the accumulation of radiation from mammograms. It becomes a self fulfilling prophecy, you will eventually get breast cancer the more times you radiate your breasts. Most importantly, thermography can detect a lentil sized spot 8-10 years prior to a mammogram. It’s a no brainier!

  3. No wonder the phrma industry is now pushing for adults to receive hepatitis shots (A, B & C from what I gather, only there ISN’T a hep A vaccine right now!). They don’t want to be held to the fire when one dangerous procedure sparks another, more dangerous disease. Good grief.
    I have a close friend who is employed by the Mayo one day surgery clinic in Rochester, MN where they perform colonoscopies and she told me this recently – if you can’t actually SEE blood in your stools, skip the pain, aggravation and expense of a colonoscopy because you don’t need one. They are promoted for money, not much else and certainly not for our health. In all honestly, if you have a problem with your colon, YOU’LL know it yourself and can then choose to be tested if you wish, although I can’t see what good it would do. She also said that approximately 99% of the polyps removed are benign and probably would have caused no problem if left alone. In fact, IMPHO, the removal probably causes more problems than we yet know.

  4. One thing YOU didn’t mention is that the sodium phosphate laxative normally used with conventional colonoscopies can be very damaging to kidneys, especially in older people – the very ones normally getting routine colonoscopies. As a chronic kidney disease patient, i find that a bigger concern as I have no family history of cancer. Check it out on WebMD.

  5. Colonoscopies save lives. Between the millimeter size detected by a colonoscopy and the centimeter size detected by the CT a polyp can shed cells into the lymphatic or venous drainage. Venous drainage from the intestines passes through the liver first and colon cancer can metastasize in the liver.
    Life Extension Foundation has criticized the virtual colonoscopy as well as other elective X-rays. The radiation exposure from the plain X-ray has declined radically, especially with digital equipment. CT scans have not improved as much.
    Many avoid conventional colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy due to the preparation and the discomfort. Those most at risk are older than 50 years. Avoiding a cancer that might kill them in 10 years in exchange for radiation that might kill them in 30 years may seem a fair trade. Reporter’s enthusiasm might come from that rather than from vendor influence.
    While a fecal occult blood test might detect cancer before the virtual colonoscopy would have, neither approaches the standard of the colonoscopy. False-positives from fecal occult blood tests must be confirmed by colonoscopy which makes the test an adjunct rather than an alternative to colonoscopy..
    Most cancers are in the lower half of the colon and would have been detected by a flexible sigmoidoscopy. One recent news item recommended the flexible sigmoidoscopy as a cost-effective alternative to colonoscopy.
    I prefer colonoscopy over sigmoidoscopy. Both require the same colon cleansing and carry the same risk of injury. Both require that the colon be inflated with air or gas to properly visualize folds and wrinkles which can be quite painful.
    Colonoscopy uses light anesthesia which also inhibits memory. Sigmoidoscopy may use no drugs at all. I remember nothing of my colonoscopy this year but remember my sigmoidoscopy almost two decades ago.
    My colonoscopy found a tiny polyp beyond the reach of a sigmoidoscopy, less than 5 mm in diameter and less than 1 mm high. Pathology found it to be normal tissue. If it had been pre-cancerous, none of the alternatives would have caught it that early.

  6. There is a wonderful (radiation free) alternative to colonoscopy, it is called a Pillcam. Unfortunately, the FDA has been blocking the approval of the colon Pillcam (the currently approved Pillcams are the Pillcam SB (small bowel) and the PillcamESO (esophagus). There is also another company (Sayaka) that makes a next generation capsule endoscopy that is far superior to Given Imaging’s PillCam, but isn’t available in the USA. Many sources state that doctors can see MORE with capsule endoscopy than standard esophageal endoscopy and colonoscopy.
    I personally believe that the FDA needs to approve Sayaka’s superior next generation capsule. I also believe that insurance companies should be required to pay for capsule endoscopy in any instance where they would otherwise pay for colonoscopy or esophageal endoscopy, without any additional prior authorization (only require prior authorization when traditional methods would require prior authorization). In most instances, pill camera are actually CHEAPER than traditional endoscopy [outpatient or inpatient surgery center, prep materials, physician charges, anesthesia, post op pain medication (depending on your physician) compared to the capsule (pill camera) and a doctor, CRNP, nurse (where permitted), Physician Assistant, Medical Assistant (where permitted), technician (where permitted), or other healthcare professional reviewing it; plus, as time goes on and as more people use Pillcams, the price will go down, traditional endoscopy isn’t likely to go down in price].
    Wikipedia – Capsule Endoscopy
    Sayaka Capsule Endoscopy

  7. My thinking on most any medical procedure is “don’t even think about it”. Just go about your daily routine and don’t pay attention to those who tell you you have to have this and that. The drug companies will control your lives if you let them. You have a mute button on that TV so use it.
    Those people are paid to tell you that you will lead a wonderful life if you take their product and in the next breath will tell you about all the side effects including death.
    I will be 80 next February and I have never been on any medications. I don’t have annual physicals. I have never had a colonoscopy.
    My wife and I raised 5 children and never had any kind of health insurance and never actually gave it any thought. Now I have medicare and have used it for a few things (hernias, cataract removal and gall bladder removal).
    The nurses really looked at me funny when I told them I did not use any medications and the doctor told me most everybody my age had a list of medications as long as their arm.
    The anesthesiologist for the cataract surgery told me I really made his job easy by not taking any medications.
    I figure if you go looking for trouble in a doctors office by asking ” Is such and such” what I need?
    He/she will probably fix you right up with a prescription and it might be for the rest of your life.

  8. i had no idea there was so much radiation in a CT scan. I’m 50 and have had at least ten CT scans in my life. Many were done on the head alone because of a seizure disorder. the first one was done when I was 12 or 13. they were new back then and we had to go to the one hospital in the area to get it done. I had at least two back in 2007 when I ruptured my appendix. i’ve had so many chest xrays from having bronchitis and asthma. i had three in 7 days one year. 2 the next year. i don’t know how many i have had in my lifetime. Every time you get admitted to a hospital it is standard procedure and even if seen in the Er it is often standard procedure. I haven’t had a mammogram since 2007 because I have no health insurance. My doctor is urging me to get one and says that the thermography wasn’t very good and that mammograms are still the “gold” standard. i wonder how much radiation i have been exposed to over my lifetime. i will try not to worry but it is good to know about the antioxidants. i will make sure to do that from now on.

  9. Can the author(s) please tell me/us – how do the radiation levels from CT-Scans compare with those done by EBT – Electron Beam Tomagraphy? I have had several body scans using EBT including virtual colonoscopies. Als are the newer CT machines with “higher slice rates” using more radiation or is the “efficiency” also improving in terms of using less radiation? I lost my mother to colon cancer – a very nasty way to die – at age 90 – she had refused a colonoscopy about 2 years before her death because she was tired of doctors and tests. So not so sure you know you have a problem without being tested.

  10. Cupidity and Stupidity will continue to trump good Science, Sentience and Prudence
    until we change the law regarding corporate responsibility. Until CEOs and Board Members of Corporations and Federal Bureaus (FDA for one) who do their bidding can be prosecuted, as in Asian countries, we will continue to suffer at their hands.
    In some countries the humiliation of egregious mistakes, judgement and errors of commission and omission by a CEO living in a culture of honesty— the humiliation of the lack of trust is too great to bear and triggers the act of Seppuku— Self effaced Suicide.
    In America intentional error doesn’t warrant reprimand or jail time but instead million dollar bonuses, inspiring more of the same from the top down.
    THAT IS THE PROBLEM….good Science can not surface until this oppressive layer of deceit and harm is dealt with judiciously, fairly, quickly and honestly in the courts.

  11. Thank you for publishing this remarkable research. I am a 61 year old woman who was treated for a plantars by radiation treatment at Long Beach Memorial Hospital in Long Beach California when I was 15. I’ve always wondered what the effects were on my over all health especially since Dr. Morgan advised my mother [who was an RN] that the treatments had not killed my plantars wart and it was only possible to continue the treatments at our own choice 3 more times at an increased risk or surgically remove it. My mother asked me who knew only that sticking my feet in the radiation machine at the shoe store was fun because I could see the bones in my feet and while waiting in the store for all my siblings, we could do that as much as we liked. So I said with no understanding at all, continue the unadvised treatments! They scheduled me for surgery after that and I surprised them by digging it out myself before hand. I’m sure it was quite dead by then.My problems came later when I can’t tolerate being anywhere near radiation machines without suffering physically. 1 1/2 years ago I was subjected to full exposure at the airport in Oakland California and I had a year of depleted immune response and then had 2 malignant melanomas removed 10 months afterward. I eat a very healthy diet and have always exercised and remain in fairly good health but I wonder how all that radiation as a young girl affects me yet.

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