The United States stands nearly alone in its embrace of backscatter x-ray body scanners at airports, downplaying legitimate concerns over the cumulative cancer risk posed by ionizing radiation emissions from these machines. Even though most developed nations, including the European Union, have opted against using these machines that have a known carcinogenic mechanism, the TSA and the FDA both claim that the x-ray scanners pose no long-term health risk to anyone, including traditionally vulnerable segments of the population, such as children and pregnant women.
What the Manufacturer and the TSA Say About the Radiation Dose from A Backscatter Scanner
According to a special report on the PBS NewsHour that aired on December 1, 2011, Peter Kant, Vice President of Government Affairs for Rapiscan Systems, says the radiation dose of one scan at the airport is about “equivalent to eating half a banana.”
The official TSA literature says the radiation dosage is equivalent to amount of natural terrestrial radiation you would receive in two minutes on a plane at an altitude of 35,000 feet, or about half the amount of a chest x-ray for a typical cross-country flight.
So perhaps to an occasional traveler, who takes a handful of flights per year, this isn’t such a big deal.
What the Radiation Research People Say
David Brenner at the Radiological Research Center at Columbia University says, though small, the risk of cancer is still present, and predicts that when fully deployed, the backscatter scanners could give 100 travelers cancer every year. Granted, the odds of you or me being one of those people is extremely remote, however, just like the lottery, there is always someone who actually wins. And when that person happens to be you or someone you love, the risk doesn’t seem worth it.
Ionizing radiation is pretty linear in terms of its exposure risk: the more radiation, the greater the risk.
So What About the Risks for Frequent Fliers?
For people who fly several times a week or work in the airline industry, the issue of cumulative radiation exposure can be a much greater concern, because the risk of contracting cancer is already higher because of chronic exposure to terrestrial radiation during flight. This group of people should be opting out of further exposure to radiation whenever possible.
According to EMR researcher Dr. Magda Havas, the most vulnerable body parts during this kind of full-body scan are the eyes and men’s testicles. Research has shown that fathers exposed to medical x-rays were more likely to have infants who contract leukemia, especially if the x-rays focused on the lower abdomen or GI tract. However, because medical x-rays are more carefully monitored to minimize unnecessary exposure, this delicate area is generally shielded. No studies have been performed on whether the cumulative effect of airport radiation exposure could also have an effect on the offspring of frequent fliers.
And how many of you would even think to close your eyes during a scan? Dr. Havas recommends at least closing your eyes during a scan to give your eyes a minimal amount of protection. Protecting your crown jewels, however, is a trickier situation. Lead boxers would most certainly be frowned upon at any checkpoint, especially since the failed underwear bomb of Christmas 2009 instigated the fervor for body scanners.
Safety Regulation and Maintenance of Scanners
Here’s the ironic thing: since backscatter x-ray machines do not serve a medical purpose, the FDA does not impose the same safety regulations as medical x-rays. Therefore, there is an FDA safety regulation for x-rays that scan baggage at airports, but none for x-rays that scan people.
The TSA skipped a mandatory public comment period before deploying the scanners, and despite comments from technicians that some machines are emitting more radiation than permitted, TSA workers are not allowed to wear dosimeter badges to monitor their radiation exposure.
Furthermore, when a TSA public affairs officer was asked by a UCSF radiologist if she or other outside scientists could test the machine, the TSA officer was shocked by the suggestion, and refused on the grounds that such testing might compromise security. And instead of state governing agencies overseeing the annual safety inspections and maintenance of the equipment, Rapiscan, the manufacturer, is in charge of policing itself.
Does anyone else feel quite a bit more nervous about going through one of these machines yet?
What the TSA Won’t Tell You About Whether X-Ray Scanners Actually Work
Peter Rez at Arizona State University has serious doubts about the scanners’ efficacy, stating that they’re designed to detect edges, and the machines target anomalies related to edges. The scanners should pick up a hard metal object like a handgun. But they can’t detect the difference between a high explosive and human tissue.
So it’s highly likely that the Christmas Day 2009 underwear bomb would have gone undetected by the same scanners that were deployed to prevent and neutralize this type of threat.
What’s more, the alternative technology for body scanners isn’t all that accurate, either. In late August of this year, Germany halted its deployment of millimeter-wave scanners, which use radio frequency waves (another health concern altogether), citing a 49% false positive rate. In most cases, body sweat was mistaken for explosives. They also can’t distinguish between pleats in a traveler’s pants and an underwear bomb.
What About High-Risk Groups?
The TSA says there’s no need for precautions when it comes to vulnerable populations such as pregnant women and small children, despite an advisory by the FAA’s medical institute for pregnant pilots and flight attendants to avoid the machine and a warning report by France’s radiation safety agency against screening pregnant women with the backscatter scanners.
It’s very difficult to measure a person’s actual exposure, particularly to the skin, because of the pencil-point-thin beam of radiation used in the scanners. Therefore, it’s hard to know just how much radiation a person is getting. Because of this, complaints have arisen from multiple groups of scientific researchers on the lack of outside access to testing.
Despite all of this controversy and growing international concern, TSA will direct every passenger, including pregnant women and children, to pass through either a metal detector or body scanner.
Luckily, there’s still an option for a physical pat-down, but in my experience, the opt-out lines aren’t available at every security checkpoint or are cleverly disguised and hidden so fewer people will see them. And during the holiday rush, waiting for a pat-down with your children could be…interesting.
What Do We Know, Really?
We the public are supposed to believe what the TSA and the FDA tell us. And they are telling us x-ray body scanners are safe, effective, and absolutely necessary.
But we know that they have been inadequately tested for safety, are dangerous as an occupational hazard for FAA employees but definitely not for TSA employees, regulated and inspected by their own manufacturer, and ineffective against the type of threat they were intended to prevent.
So what are you going to do this holiday season: Opt-in, or opt-out?