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Safety Standards

The fact that dose limits are not applicable for patients has sometimes led to the mistaken belief that there are no requirements for patient protection. The International Basic Safety Standards (BSS) have requirements for protection in medical exposure and an Appendix provides the full details.

1. Why have an international system of radiation protection?

While dealing with issues pertaining to radiation protection, the following situations could occur:

  • Some countries require a medical prescription to have radiation exposure for diagnosis, while other countries do not.
  • In some countries, whole body computed tomography screening is allowed, while in others it is not.
  • One country’s dose limit for occupational protection is 20mSv/yr, while another country prescribes 50 mSv/yr, etc.
  • In some countries, there is pressure to impose dose limits for patients undergoing medical examinations, while in others there are no dose limits for patients.
  • In some countries, patients who have received therapy with unsealed radiopharmaceuticals are sent home after a few hours, while other countries retain the patients in the hospital.
  • In some countries, those working with radiation enjoy certain privileges, while other countries do not allow privileges to replace radiation protection measures.

Such situations emphasize the need for credible international standards that are based on worldwide consensus.

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2. How are international standards on radiation protection achieved?

International Standards are a set of mandatory requirements agreed on by worldwide consensus, based on the knowledge of biological effects of radiation and on principles for protection from undesirable effects [1], i.e.:

  • Radiation effects: the Standards draw upon information derived from extensive research and development work by scientific and engineering organizations, at national and international levels, on the health effects of radiation and on techniques for the safe design and operation of radiation sources. They also draw upon the experience of many countries in the use of radiation and nuclear techniques. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), a body set up by the United Nations in 1955, compiles, assesses and disseminates information on the health effects of radiation and on levels of radiation exposure due to different sources.

  • Principles of protection: The principles for protection are obtained from the recommendations given by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP). The ICRP provides recommendations in a series of reports addressing specific medical applications.

  • International Basic Radiation Safety Standards: From the knowledge on the effects and from principles of radiation protection, worldwide consensus is achieved (Member States from United Nations and other International Organizations) and the requirements for the Standards are agreed upon.

The Standards place requirements on those authorized to conduct a practice using radiation, and are based on the presumption that there is a national infrastructure enabling Governments to discharge their responsibilities for protection and safety. It is this aspect that implicitly makes it necessary for international requirements to be established only by organizations with official status to establish these requirements. Which organizations fit into this slot? The official status accrues to international organization under the United Nation family. The IAEA is specifically authorized by its Member States, under the terms of its Statute to establish standards of safety for the protection of health and minimization of danger to life, in collaboration with the competent organs of the United Nations and the specialized agencies concerned and to provide for the application of these standards. Professional organizations can, however, collaborate and provide advice during the process of establishing and applying Standards.

The Standards have been developed with specific objectives to establish requirements for protection against the risks associated with exposure to ionizing radiation. The requirements have the force that is derived from the statutory provisions of the sponsoring organizations and further scope as contained therein.

The current International Basic Safety Standards for Protection Against Ionising Radiation and for the Safety of Radiation Sources (BSS) was issued in 1996. It is jointly sponsored by FAO, ILO, OECD/NEA, PAHO, WHO in addition to the IAEA.

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[1] In therapeutic medical application of radiation, some effects are desired, such as those in the target volume, which are the objective of radiotherapy.

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