Radiation exposure and lung disease in today's nuclear world

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Purpose of review

Ionizing radiation poses important health risks. The per capita annual dose rate has increased in the United States and there is increasing concern for the risks posed by low-dose occupational exposure among workers in nuclear industries and healthcare. Recent nuclear accidents and concern for terrorism have heightened concern for catastrophic, high-dose ionizing radiation exposure. This review will highlight recent research into the risks to lung health posed by ionizing radiation exposure and into potential treatments.

Recent findings

Angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors and some antioxidants have shown promise as mitigators, to decrease pneumonitis and fibrosis when given after exposure. Studies of survivors of nuclear catastrophes have shown increased risk for lung cancer, especially in nonsmokers. There is evidence for increased lung cancer risk in industrial radiation workers, especially those who process plutonium and may inhale radioactive particles. There does not seem to be an increased risk of lung cancer in healthcare workers who perform fluoroscopic procedures.


High-dose ionizing radiation exposure causes pneumonitis and fibrosis, and more research is needed to develop mitigators to improve outcomes in nuclear catastrophes. Long-term, low-dose occupational radiation may increase lung cancer risk. More research to better define this risk could lead to improved safety protocols and screening programs.

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