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J Radiol Prot. 2009 Mar;29(1):5-21. doi: 10.1088/0952-4746/29/1/R01. Epub 2009 Feb 18.

Review of relative biological effectiveness dependence on linear energy transfer for low-LET radiations.

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  • 1Health Protection Agency, Radiation Protection Division, Oxford, UK.


Information on Japanese A-bomb survivors exposed to gamma radiation has been used to estimate cancer risks for the whole range of photon (x-rays) and electron energies which are commonly encountered by radiation workers in the work place or by patients and workers in diagnostic radiology. However, there is some uncertainty regarding the radiation effectiveness of various low-linear energy transfer (low-LET) radiations (x-rays, gamma radiation and electrons). In this paper we review information on the effectiveness of low-LET radiations on the basis of epidemiological and in vitro radiobiological studies. Data from various experimental studies for chromosome aberrations and cell transformation in human lymphocytes and from epidemiological studies of the Japanese A-bomb survivors, patients medically exposed to radiation for diagnostic and therapeutic procedures, and occupational exposures of nuclear workers are considered. On the basis of in vitro cellular radiobiology, there is considerable evidence that the relative biological effectiveness (RBE) of high-energy low-LET radiation (gamma radiation, electrons) is less than that of low-energy low-LET radiation (x-rays, betas). This is a factor of about 3 to 4 for 29 kVp x-rays (e.g. as in diagnostic radiation exposures of the female breast) and for tritium beta-rays (encountered in parts of the nuclear industry) relative to Co-60 gamma radiation and 2-5 MeV gamma-rays (as received by the Japanese A-bomb survivors). In epidemiological studies, although for thyroid and breast cancer there appears to be a small tendency for the excess relative risks to decrease as the radiation energy increases for low-LET radiations, it is not statistically feasible to draw any conclusion regarding an underlying dependence of cancer risk on LET for the nominally low-LET radiations.

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