3 Different Types of Radiation Shielding Materials (Part 1)

What are the different types of radiation shielding materials?

Radiation shielding materials are used for a variety of radiologic applications. “The use of radiation in diagnosing and treating patients has significantly advanced the field of medicine and saved or extended countless lives¹.” Advances in technology and more sophisticated applications have improved standard treatments for the benefit of the patient. Radiation use does, however, come with risks. “Those who use radiation must be adequately trained in radiation safety, radiation physics, the biologic effects of radiation, and injury prevention to ensure patient safety¹.” One of the three major principles of mitigating external radiation exposure is shielding, “Using absorber material such as Plexiglas for beta particles and lead for X-rays and gamma rays is an effective way to reduce radiation exposure².”

Radiation Shielding Materials

Historically, radiation shielding materials have been manufactured from lead (Pb). Lead shielding, often used in a variety of applications including diagnostic imaging, radiation therapy, nuclear and industrial shielding. For the purpose of this post, we will focus on the three different types of materials used in manufacturing x-ray attenuating garments such as aprons, vests, and skirts.

Radiation Shielding Materials

Radiation shielding garments are commonly used to protect medical patients and workers from direct and secondary radiation during diagnostic imaging in hospitals, clinics and dental offices³. Historically, the attenuating qualities of lead made it “the element of choice” for radiation protection. However, advances in radiation shielding material technology have produced two alternative materials, lead composite and lead-free radiation shielding. Now medical professionals have several options when it comes to selecting their radiation shielding garments.

Traditional Lead (Pb) Shielding

Lead is a chemical element in the carbon group with the symbol Pb and atomic number 82. Lead is a soft, malleable and corrosion-resistant material³. The high density of lead (11.34 grams per cm³) makes it a useful shield against X-ray and gamma-ray radiation. Lead, in its pure form, is brittle and cannot be worn as apparel. To transform pure lead into a wearable radiation shielding material it’s mixed with binders and additives to make a flexible lead vinyl sheet. The lead sheets are then layered to the desired thickness to achieve the required lead equivalency and incorporated into the radiation shielding garment. There are typically three standard levels of lead equivalency protection for traditional lead radiation shielding garments including 0.25mm, 0.35mm and 0.5mm.

Lead (Pb) Composite Shielding

Lead composite shielding is a mixture of lead and other lighter weight metals. These lead-based composite blends are a proprietary mixture of lead and other heavy metals that attenuate radiation. The lead composite blend will vary by manufacturer as they have developed their own proprietary blends that may include a mixture of lead, tin, rubber, PVC vinyl and other proprietary attenuating metals. The lead-based composite blend radiation shielding garments are lighter (up to 25%) than regular grade lead and are available with the same lead equivalency protection levels.

Non-Lead (Pb) and Lead (Pb) Free Shielding

Similar to the proprietary blends of lead-based composite shielding materials the non-lead and lead-free shielding materials offer the same protection levels. Non-lead shielding materials are manufactured with additives and binders mixed with attenuating heavy metals that fall into the same category of materials as lead that also absorb or block radiation. These metals may include tin (Sn), antimony (Sb), tungsten (W) bismuth (Bi) or other elements. Non-lead aprons and lead-free aprons are recyclable and safe for non-hazardous disposal. The material blends are propriety to the specific manufacturer; therefore; the materials mentioned above are not representative of any specific manufacturer.

Benefits of Shielding Options

The three core material options discussed all have their own unique benefits and features. There are several factors you will want to consider when making your decision, including the specific procedure being performed, length of the procedure, and frequency of the procedure. To determine the proper amount of protection required in your working environment contact your radiation safety officer or radiation physicist. Selecting the right radiation shielding garment begins by identifying the core material option right for you.

(Part 2)  How to determine which x-ray apron material is right for you

In our next post, we will discuss how to determine which x-ray apron material is right for you. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us.

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