Are Ultrasounds as Safe as You Think?:
Unnecessary Ultrasounds Risk Babies' Health

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Since their introduction in the 1960's, ultrasounds have become widespread as routine screening procedures which are performed as many as 17 times during healthy pregnancies. Although touted as harmless and beneficial, randomly controlled trials have shown the technology provides no benefit to unborn children in the vast majority of situations, and ultrasound dangers are often overlooked. Ironically, the rate of intrauterine growth retardation (IUGR), one of the primary conditions used to justify routine ultrasound scanning, increases when babies are exposed to ultrasound. The American College of Radiology states that ultrasounds "Should be performed only when there is a valid medical reason and the lowest possible ultrasonic exposure setting should be used," because ultrasounds use radiation. The World Health Organization (WHO) also discourages the routine use of ultrasound screening, yet the procedure has become so widespread and profitable that usage has only increased.

Expensive Routine Screening For Pregnant Women

Pregnant women (along with the majority of health care providers) have grown to believe that ultrasound screening is completely safe and can be routinely performed during every pregnancy (x-rays were once regarded in a similar manner until it was discovered that prenatal exposure to radiation increases the rate of childhood cancer). The majority of women with a low risk pregnancy will receive at least ten scans over a nine month period. Considering that the average cost of each ultrasound is over $500, it is logical that health care providers and their hosting facilities are handsomely profiting from these procedures which provide questionable benefits to the unborn child.

Are Ultrasounds Safe for Babies, or Even Helpful?

Ultrasound technology is widely believed to be harmless, yet no scientific study has ever been completed to examine ultrasound dangers. To the contrary, a study performed during the 1990's examined nearly 3000 women; approximately one half received an average of five scans throughout pregnancy and the other half received only one. Researchers discovered 33 percent more instances of IUGR cases in the intensively scanned group. A study performed at University College Dublin on mice also revealed that exposure to ultrasound creates significant changes in rates of cellular division. Within the same time period as the IUGR focused study, another group of more than 15,000 women and their babies were divided into two groups to evaluate the usefulness of ultrasound. One group received an average of 2.2 scans during pregnancy while the other received an average of 0.6. When the rates of adverse outcomes, including fetal and neonatal mortality, were analyzed, no significant differences were found between the two groups.

Baseless Justification for Scans Despite Risks of Ultrasound

One of the most common justifications health care workers provide for routine use of ultrasound screening is detection of IUGR. Considering the previously mentioned study describing the increased prevalence of IUGR cases among women who received a greater number of ultrasound screenings. this logic seems flawed. Additionally, studies have revealed that palpation and measurements performed by a trained physician or midwife can provide a more accurate diagnosis of IUGR than ultrasound technology can. Ultrasound is linked to a high rate of false positive IUGR diagnoses and may lead to a cascade of additional medical interventions and high levels of anxiety in the mother-to-be. The only treatment for IUGR is prevention through improved nutrition and drug avoidance during pregnancy, adding further doubt to the validity of this justification for routine ultrasound use.

Yet another Risk of Ultrasound: An Unregulated Industry and Wide Range of Exposures

Although the "lowest possible ultrasonic exposure setting" during screening is recommended by the American College of Radiology, lack of regulation concerning the output characteristics of devices used to deliver these ultrasonic waves has resulted in a wide variance in machines. Some machines are said to emit energy frequencies 5000 times as strong as those required to effectively produce images, yet manufacturers are not required to state the emissions of any device produced. To complicate matters further, no specific training is required for ultrasound technicians. This lack of formal training often leads to longer exposure to ultrasonic waves at a frequency which may be higher than needed to produce satisfactory results.

Numerous Medical Organizations Discourage Routine Scanning, Warn about Dangers of Ultrasound

Despite recommendations made by the American College of Radiology and the WHO, ultrasound technology continues to be widely used during low risk pregnancies with no medically justifiable reason. Even the FDA states that  “Ultrasound scans should be done only when there is a medical need, based on a prescription, and performed by appropriately-trained operators.” Considering these recommendations and the fact that no formal training is required for operators, how can mothers be assured that ultrasound scanning is truly in the best interest of their unborn children? The current rampant use of this technology which provides questionable benefits and possible harm leads one to believe that profits may be slowing down the spread of accurate scientific data. Doctors are required to inform patients of the potential side effects of a medical procedure, along with available alternatives, before the patient can grant informed consent. Parents are advised to conduct their own research about the risks of ultrasound before consenting to ultrasound screening and should consult with an attorney if ultrasound related damage is suspected.

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