Telling Lies About MRIs

Plenty of people dislike the European Commission, but I have yet to see it suggested that Europe kills.

Once upon a time, to find out where blood went as it surged through the body, it was necessary to slice open living patients. This was a sad occurrence, entailing the risk of death, but nothing better was available. At the end of the 19th centaury, the discovery of X-rays let us see into living patients, permitting the better setting of bones and spotting of tumours. But x-rays aren’t terribly good for you: fortunately, there is a better way.

People are squishy things, largely composed of water, and water, as schoolchildren laboriously recite by rote, contains hydrogen. Hydrogen atoms behave like bells: wack ‘em, and they jingle all the way. So if we kick the bells with a sufficiently loud radio wave, they’ll sing back to us: more a cacophony than a symphony. But get a great big magnet, and you can change the note the bells ring at: the bigger the magnet, the higher the note. If the magnet were stronger in some places than others, the different notes would tell us where each of them are, and the loudness of the note how many there are.  This idea, combined with delicate electronics, cunning bits of maths and a lot of trial and error netted its British inventor a share of the Nobel Prize in 2003. MRIs have been used to locate tumours, fix bad backs and map blood flow in the brain. Nearly a hundred million scans have been performed worldwide in the last 25 years.

‘MRI operators are not begetting sinister, half-formed murderous mutants bent on world domination, unleashing global chaos and all the stock market disruption that this would entail.’

And yet the European Commission, via the agency of Physical Agents (Electromagnetic Fields) Directive, proposes to introduce entirely arbitrary levels of “exposure” for operators, seriously reducing the number of scans possible. This story surfaced in the press at the end of last year, and subsequently vanished without trace. The directive must be implemented in UK law by 2008, so the clock is ticking. Is this just the “Eurosceptic press” making a fuss about nothing, or have we a problem?

The cheerfully named “Euromyths” section of the commission website engages in “rebuttal of press error and bias”[sic]. This seems to be a good place to reassure myself that that the kindly Eurocrats have my best interests at heart. “[Media claims that this will endanger health] are completely false”. Jolly good: what’s the real story that those cynical EU-bashing jingoist journos are suppressing? The directive is there to “protect” workers from MRIs, which “which scientific experts agree [are] dangerous for health.” What, all of them? Tell that to the motley crew of the 12 world renowned experts and the token Nobel laureate, who have all reacted with dismay to the Directive, and have petitioned Patricia Hewitt for a re-think (or, indeed, a think).

‘The only deaths in the machines have been from ballistic hairpins or patients who forget they have pacemakers’

However, the Commission produces its own experts: the rather grandly titled International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP). This small German-based think tank is extremely well regarded, and Euromyths proudly states that the EC has based the directive on the “results and recommendations” of  the ICNIRP. 

The ICNIRP accepts that there are no known risks associated with the MRIs: the only deaths in the machines have been from ballistic hairpins or patients who forget they have pacemakers. There is no evidence that one of those 100 million scans in 25 years has harmed an operator, a patient or an animal. On what grounds can one limit exposure? MRI operators are not begetting sinister, half-formed murderous mutants bent on world domination, unleashing global chaos and all the stock market disruption that this would entail.

Disturbingly, the author of the ICNIRP Report appears to believe that MRIs are a form of radiation, which would be comic were it not tragic, but of course permits the use of the dreaded “R”-word, conjuring up mental images of A bombs and B movies. I would hesitate to say if this is motivated by ignorance or malice.

At this point, we are lectured by the learned Vladimir Spidla, the “Commissioner for employment, social affairs and equal opportunities”, as follows: “The risk of MRI is a real one for everybody who is exposed to it regularly”. Later, “I am concerned that those who are protesting are underestimating the radiation of MRI”. Good old “R” word again: abandon all rational thought ye who Vlad hear. 

The learned Commissioner’s website proudly attests to a PhD in history and has a CV replete with such jobs such as “saw-mill worker” ,“First Deputy Prime Minister” and “scene-shifter”, but fails to tell us his qualifications in (any) science. Delightfully, he enthuses on his blog “Hurrah for technology!”

Radiation, or better still, “RF radiation”, sounds a lot scarier than “radio waves”: the first might well Do Things to the cows milk and is bound to cause trouble come lambing time, while the other sounds, quite frankly, like the technology that Granny would be comfortable with. A back of the envelope calculation suggests that the radio waves MRI scanners use have an energy slightly higher that of the World Service and rather lower than that of BBC 1. Stay tuned for EU directives safety limits for television set operators.

The terrible (or terribly amusing) irony of all this is that is the quest to avoid this at best hypothetical risk will expose patients to a real, quantifiable risk: X-rays. A medical chest X-ray doesn’t give you a vast dose of radiation: roughly equivalent to a return flight to the US, or 6 months spent in Cornwall, but it’s best to avoid exposure as much as possible. As there is a shortage of MRI operators, so fewer scans can be done: it is as simple as that. Longer waiting lists for MRIs and more X-rays will be the unintended consequence of this legislation.

The desire to minimise risk is a healthy one: the desire to eliminate it is perverse and unnatural. It pretends that a risk free life is possible and contends that our knowledge of the world should be as an insect trapped in amber in some dusty draw in the Science Museum, unchanging, unevolving, enduring - and sterile. This fantasy the world won’t change, that science is finished and nothing should be done unless it can be “proved” to be safe needs to be rooted out before it is too late.







































One in the eye for the European nanny-state?