What Is Scatter Radiation? Causes, Risks, and Protection

Scatter radiation is a dangerous form of x-ray radiation that poses risks for healthcare personnel. 

If you are new to the world of radiation protection, this article will help you understand what scattered radiation is, what its effects are, and how you can stay protected from it. 

The simplest scatter radiation definition comes from the National Cancer Institute, which writes:

“…is radiation that spreads out in different directions from a radiation beam when the beam interacts with a substance, such as body tissue.” 

Scattered radiation has lower energy than the original radiation beam but can still accumulate in the body over time, leading to severe and chronic health conditions.

How is Scatter Radiation Produced?

Similar to a stream of water hitting a surface and splashing off in all directions, scatter radiation is produced when a radiation beam hits an object. While most of the radiation continues through the substance to create the x-ray, some of the rays come apart and bounce off the substance (whether that be tissue, bone, medical equipment, or even the walls of the room). 

When x-rays are performed, the object creating the most scatter radiation is the patient. As the primary radiation beam enters the patient, some of it scatters and ricochets around the room. 

The radiation that makes it through the body and onto the image receptor is called remnant radiation. 

Types of Scatter Radiation 

There are several types, and each kind requires its own mitigation strategies and protective barriers in order to protect staff from the cumulative effects of radiation. 

  • Backscatter. This is created by remnant radiation that exits a patient’s body and then bounces off the film, heading back towards the X-ray tube.
  • Side scatter. This type of radiation is created by objects in the x-ray room. For example, chairs, tables, and even the floors and ceiling.
  • Scatter radiation. While both backscatter and side scatter can colloquially fall under this umbrella term, an exact definition requires x-rays bouncing off a patient’s body.


What Are the Effects of Scatter Radiation?

X-ray radiation has the potential to damage cells, causing serious and sometimes fatal conditions. 

The difference between x-ray photons coming from the x-ray machine and those generated as scattered radiation is that rays from the primary beam have full momentum, so they can cause more damage. On the other hand, scatter radiation is a ricochet and so has had some of its energy absorbed by whatever object it impacted. 

That said, while the most dangerous radiation comes from direct contact with the primary x-ray beam, scatter radiation can still cause severe damage to the body over time. 

How Does it Affect Patients?

Because patients are typically exposed to only a few instances of the scatter, the truly at-risk parties are radiology technicians and others who frequently administer x-rays. 

The primary concern is limiting time spent under or in front of a primary radiation beam for patients. 

How Does it Affect Technologists?

When a radioactive x-ray photon bounces off an object and then hits a technologist or physician, the radiation can collide with atoms in the body, knocking electrons out of orbit and transforming atoms into ions or electrically charged atoms. 

Health problems can emerge if enough atoms are damaged, including cancer, cataracts, burns, hair loss, and many other painful and chronic conditions.

How to Protect Against Scattered Radiation 

While the average person is only exposed to a couple of instances of scatter radiation per year, radiologists and technologists can be exposed to dozens of x-rays each day. And since radiation damage increases with each exposure, these healthcare professionals must take mitigating steps to protect against cancer and other conditions.

A man wearing lead apron protecting against scatter radiation

Protective Garments

Because the radiation can come from any direction, its important for technicians who are in the room with an x-ray machine to wear protective garments. Examples of protective gear include: 

  • Protective Xray Aprons. Many aprons provide protection for the front and back of the body, including the upper legs. These can be paired with full or half-length sleeves for enhanced radiation protection.
  • Leaded Eyewear. Radiation can damage atoms in the eye, resulting in cataracts and other conditions. Leaded glass eyewear protects the eye, blocking radiation.
  • Protective Gloves. Exposing the hands to radiation can cause burns, hair loss, and pain. Attenuating gloves stop radiation and keep the hands safe.
  • Thyroid Shield Covers. Radiation can cause thyroid cancer. By wearing a thyroid guard, technologists can block radiation and keep their neck and thyroid healthy.

Protective Barriers

Sometimes, aprons aren’t enough. When the level of radiation is especially high, barriers and shields are necessary in order to ensure radiation blocking. Examples of radiation shields include: 

  • Mobile Radiation Shields. The Terminator XR™ is an industry-leading portable x-ray shield that provides long bone protection and defends doctors and technicians from scattered radiation during long procedures.
  • Scatter Reducing Shields. These flexible shields are placed on patients to protect them from excessive radiation. Many shields include holes to allow for medical procedures like dialysis, angiography, biopsies, and device implant procedures.

How Barrier Technologies is Protecting Healthcare Workers From Radiation Scatter 

Here at Barrier Technologies, our engineers constantly innovate to develop new and exciting products that can protect against radiation scatter. One of the major contributions we’ve made to the healthcare industry is creating a lead-free attenuating material. 

This innovation was driven by the need for a more flexible, comfortable, and lighter attenuating product because while lead is great at stopping radiation, it’s also heavy, cumbersome, and toxic. 

To provide a solution to this need, our bismuth and titanium attenuating material is just as effective as lead at stopping scatter radiation but is over 30% lighter. 

So whether you’re looking for Surgical Lead-Free Aprons or other radiation products, contact Barrier Technologies for all your radiation protection needs.