US Actor Tom Cruise arrives with his gir
John D. Mchugh  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Tom Cruise bought a sonogram machine so that he and girlfriend Katie Holmes can see their unborn child at home. While a sweet gesture, doctors say there are risks.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/6/2005 2:20:38 PM ET 2005-12-06T19:20:38

Obstetricians across the country are hoping that Tom Cruise will decide to back out of his latest acting gig — ultrasound technician.

In a recent television interview for Barbara Walters' annual show on the year’s most fascinating people, Cruise said he has purchased an ultrasound machine to use during the pregnancy of girlfriend Katie Holmes.

He said medical technicians are helping the couple use the device and that they will donate it to a hospital after the baby is born.

Ultrasounds, or sonograms, have been widely used during pregnancy since the 1970s. To obtain images of the fetus, obstetricians or technicians — many of whom complete 18 months of training in the practice — use a transducer to send a stream of high-frequency sound waves into the body and detect their echoes as they bounce off internal structures. The sound waves are then converted to electric impulses that are processed to form an image displayed on a computer monitor. 

Safety concerns
Sonograms have become standard practice in many obstetrics practices to help doctors and parents learn important information about the fetus before birth, including size, position in the uterus and even the presence of some birth defects.

Experts say no significant health risks to a baby who has undergone ultrasound at the low levels approved for obstetrics use have been shown. According to the Food and Drug Administration, which must approve ultrasound devices before they are sold in the United States, the only consistent finding has been a slight increase in left-handedness among boys.

But according to the American College of Radiology, which offers guidelines on sonography, laboratory studies have shown that some levels of ultrasound can produce physical effects in tissue, such as vibrations and a rise in temperature, especially when used for a prolonged period of time.

In response to Cruise’s personal tech acquisition, the ACR issued a release saying the group supports the view of the FDA that fetal ultrasound be performed only for medical purposes, by certified technologists and with a prescription from a physician.

ACR president Dr. Carol Rumack says she is concerned that a potential problem could be missed or that something routine could be misinterpreted as a problem, causing unneeded worry for the parents. Another worry is that the fetus could be exposed to a greater intensity of sound waves than recommended.

The FDA says that while prenatal sonograms are generally done at very low power levels, current machines, which range in price from $15,000 to $200,000, can produce sound wave intensities eight times higher than a decade ago and at that level, especially if used for prolonged periods, there could be a real risk to the developing fetus.

"We have no idea what kind of machine Tom Cruise purchased,’’ says Dr. Joshua Copel, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Yale University.

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The actor’s publicist says Cruise has no further comment on the matter.

Not just "for fun"
The FDA has investigated non-medically supervised ultrasound exams over the last few years because of the proliferation of "sonogram studios," many in shopping malls across the country with names such as "Fetal Fotos" and "Womb with a View."

Slideshow: Top gun In fact, Cruise’s purchase may even be illegal. In 2002, the FDA said that anyone conducting ultrasound testing without a medical prescription from a physician is breaking the law.

But doctors also acknowledge that Cruise’s purchase is likely just anticipation run amok. "I think his decision is well-intentioned, but misguided,’’ says Dr. Michael Ross, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Harbor UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, Calif. "Using the equipment for fun is not what it’s intended for.’’

Copel agrees: "If  Mr. Cruise and Ms. Holmes want their child to be a film star, they should wait until he or she is born."

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