It’s Time to Opt-out of X-Ray Scans at the Airport

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

Photo of computer screens showing x-ray of a person and a control panelAccord­ing 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.

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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?

Fur­ther Read­ing


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