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.
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.
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.
[Facing a CT Scan? Think About Radiation]
Psychologist Jonathan Bricker, who conducts cancer prevention research at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, says he's not convinced. He's familiar with the UCSF letter and told me he's going to opt for pat downs when he flies from now on, which can total 15 times a year. "The pat down poses no health risks to me," he explains, whereas he's uncertain about the cumulative radiation exposure posed by the backscatter scanner.
I should point out that there's another type of full-body scanner being used in some airports that many experts prefer over the backscatter machine. It's called a millimeter wave scanner; it doesn't use X-rays, and as far as experts can tell it has "no known safety issues associated with it," says biophysicist David Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. Of the 385 imaging units at 68 U.S. airports, about half are millimeter wave scanners and half are backscatter machines. But the government isn't interested in only purchasing millimeter wave scanners, since it considers both technologies equally safe, says Kimball. "We want competition-driven innovation," he adds, which would be lost if only one company was given a lucrative government contract.
The TSA has a list of airports that currently employ the new imaging technology, but the list doesn't indicate which airport has which type of scanner. For that information, passengers would need to ask airport security personnel directly.
Overall, an individual's risk of going though a full-body scanner once or twice a year "is miniscule," Brenner says. Still, the risk could be more significant, he says, for pilots, flight attendants, and other frequent fliers who pass through security hundreds of times a year, upping their cumulative radiation exposure. Like the UCSF scientists, Brenner adds that he'd like to see "more independent analyses of the radiation doses involved," since "there is fairly convincing evidence" that the FDA is underestimating the radiation dose delivered by these scans. The U.S. Airline Pilots Association has voiced concerns about radiation exposure from the scanners and has asked the TSA to exempt pilots from the scans. For now, those who seldom travel through airports shouldn't be too concerned about radiation exposure from backscatter scanners. Frequent flyers, though, might want to follow Bricker's lead and opt for pat downs if they aren't too averse to them—at least until more is known about the radiation risks.