Radiation Experts Concerned With TSA Airport Security Scanners

A commentary on the safety of new full-body scanners and why experts disagree with the government.


Backscatter: male/female – front/back


Holiday travel may prove to be a bigger headache than usual this year with opposition mounting to new airport security screening measures. Some folks are outraged by the choices they're now faced with at a growing number of airports: submit to a full-body imaging scan that reveals what's underneath their clothes and delivers a dose of radiation, or submit to a thorough pat down that now includes breasts, tush, and genitals. In cell phone recordings going viral, John Tyner, a 31-year-old California man, refused both options last weekend telling a Transportation Security Administration agent, "If you touch my junk, I'll have you arrested." He was thrown out of San Diego's airport and missed a pheasant-hunting trip with his dad.

As with all things controversial—especially those the government has a hand in—fact and fiction often become so intertwined that it's tough to tell one from the other. In trying to determine just how badly those nude scans would infringe on my privacy, I discovered a claim made by Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan that his scans were printed out at London's Heathrow airport by security officers for him to autograph. Turns out the airport has no way to save or print the scans, so odds are this never happened, according to airport officials. The TSA says scanners at U.S. airports don't have those capabilities either, so you needn't worry that your scan will wind up on Facebook. You can also rest assured that the security officer present as you stand in the scanner fully clothed isn't sneaking a peek at what you look like naked. "The officer who views the image is remotely located in a secure resolution room and never sees the passenger," reads the Transportation Security Administration's website. Faces on the images are also blurred, as you can see from the pictures posted here.

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Nor do parents have to worry about their kids getting physically molested if, say, the Pez dispenser in their pocket looks suspicious on the scanner. Kids under 12 will get modified pat downs, says the TSA, that don't involve touching genitals. Sounds fine, except I don't think my 15-year-old would be any less traumatized by the full pat down than my 10-year-old.

The government, though, might be engaging in a little myth-making of its own by insisting that the new airport imaging machines that use X-rays are unequivocally safe for all passengers and airport personnel passing through dozens or even hundreds of times a year. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says the new device, known as a backscatter X-ray machine, meets the standard of a "general use" X-ray machine, meaning that a person would have to have 1,000 scans a year before approaching the maximum allowable radiation dose for the general public.

But some researchers who study radiation's health effects beg to differ. Last April, four imaging experts from the University of California, San Francisco sent a letter of concern to President Obama's science and technology advisor, John Holdren, questioning, "the extent to which the safety of this scanning device has been adequately demonstrated," they wrote. They added that it might deliver a concentrated dose of radiation to the skin—necessary to penetrate clothes—that could be "dangerously high," possibly increasing the risk of skin cancer and other cancers in susceptible individuals. They called for an independent panel of experts to review all the risk data including whether the scanners pose a higher risk to certain folks like pregnant women, seniors, children, and teens.

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The government declined their request, reiterating that the scans are safe for everyone. "The imaging machine was independently tested, and these studies have shown that the radiation dose is far below the standards set for safety," says TSA spokesperson Nick Kimball. "These scans are safe for all passengers and are similar to the radiation they're exposed to at high altitudes on an airplane." People are exposed to radiation all the time on the ground, but they get a larger dose when they're traveling 30,000 feet above ground, where the atmosphere is thinner and the sun's rays stronger.